2009 Elk Forecast: Western U.S.

The wild west is an elk hunter's dream.

Looking for the ultimate elk hunting challenge? Hunting Alaska’s islands could be it. Even catching a glimpse of elk in the thick forests should be considered a successful hunt. Back in the late 1920s Alaska traded to the state of Washington mountain goats for Roosevelt’s elk: the latter now inhabit two regions in Alaska. Game Management Unit (GMU) 8 encompasses the Kodiak Archipelago, GMU 3 is located farther south near Etolin Island, with the majority of elk found in the South Etolin Wilderness.

Over the past several years, hunter success in GMU 8 has hovered around 25 percent. Bulls are notoriously large of body, but generally carry antlers that are quite small in proportion. Choosing a rifle to hunt these animals is more akin to gearing up for a moose hunt than elk. Hunters should also be aware that Afognak averages two brown bears every three square miles. Packing an elk on your back might be every bit as exciting as the hunt itself. The state allots 275 lottery permits for GMU 8, Alaska’s best odds at an elk.  Permits are available for three seasons, including 25 archery-only for September and two October seasons, each allotted 50 permits.

The opportunity to choose from three different sub-species of elk makes California unique. The coveted tags are in short supply, making general drawing odds slim. Nonresidents can apply for the general drawing, but odds are also slim. The state offers three auction tags: one for Grizzly Island, one for Owens Valley and one multiple-zone tag in which recipients can choose to hunt one of the three sub-species. Joe Hobbs, the state elk coordinator, reports that there is a proposal afoot to allow nonresidents to purchase landowner tags for 2010, a move that could increase access for those who can afford an outfitter, but would accomplish nothing for nonresidents wanting to hunt on public land. Residents looking for the best odds should put in for archery cow tags in the Owens Valley, says Hobbs.

Drawing a bull tag gives anyone a shot at a trophy, but it’s no guarantee of success. As Hobbs explains, “There are trophy-quality animals in every zone, but it takes work to get them.”

Pardon the expression, but Colorado is the big box store of the elk hunting world. The state offers a bit of everything. Limited-entry, tough-to-draw tags provide a legitimate shot at a world-class bull in some units, such as those in the northwest corner of the state, but hunters need 15 to 20 preference points to draw. Over-the-counter tags are widely available, giving hunters a shot at a bull. Most will be spikes and raghorns, but mature bulls can be found in these hard-hunted units. The state also allots a plethora of antlerless licenses—though around 10,000 less than last year—giving meat hunters excellent odds.

From a weather standpoint, 2008 was tough on hunters. Conditions went from hot and dry in the early seasons to wild and windy later on. Then it warmed up again, leaving animals high and tough to find. For 2009, Division of Wildlife big game coordinator Bruce Watkins says hunters should have more opportunity at mature bulls this year as the harvest was generally down last year.

Elk populations in Montana remain at or above management objectives in most areas, including the southwestern portion of the state, which accounts for a considerable slice of the annual elk harvest and hunting pressure. However, a number of factors hint that hunters will work harder to find elk this fall. Although herd counts were incomplete at this writing, Quentin Kujala, chief of the Wildlife Management Bureau, points to tough wintering conditions in portions of western Montana as a factor that may decrease the number of yearling animals.

Elsewhere, recent regulations that opened the entire season to either-sex hunting with an over‑the‑counter tag seem to be succeeding at lowering elk populations where elk were significantly over management objectives. Because of this, some areas will no longer offer over‑the‑counter, either-sex tags. Although the liberalized either‑sex regulations appear to be having the desired effect, Kujala cautions that the trend is too short to be certain, and these herds may well rebound above objective again.

Read about Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Washington and Wyoming. Also, check out our interactive elk map for state-by-state populations, tag costs, bull-to-cow ratios and more.

Courtesy of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

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