2009 Elk Forecast: Southwest U.S.

Every state in this sizzling region offers up a sizeable elk herd.

For elk hunters, New Mexico lives up to its nickname, “Land of Enchantment.” “We have great opportunity to hunt elk in unique habitat with potential for big bulls,” says Stewart Liley, the state’s elk program coordinator. What more could a hunter want?

Arizona has one of the finest reputations in the nation as a trophy-producing destination. Brian Wakeling, the state’s top big game manager, emphatically states that any unit hunters draw has the potential for big bulls. More specifically, he notes that the units surrounding Flagstaff have been good. Units 1 and 27 on the east side, and 3A, 3B and 3C around Pine Top are units to consider as well.

Arizona has seen favorable conditions for elk over the past several years and elk populations are stable in most regions. Elk are primarily distributed across a band that begins northwest of Flagstaff then continues southeast to the New Mexico state line. In the east-central portion of the state, elk numbers are increasing. The Arizona Game and Fish Department, though, is not issuing additional antlerless tags because biologists want more elk in these areas.

While many elk hunters are lured by the prospects of chasing Arizona bulls during the rut, the late-season hunts in November and December have their own appeal. Temperatures are cooler and bulls are more likely to be found in bachelor bands, without the early warning systems provided by dozens of wary cows.

New Mexico
While some may assume that Liley’s perspective only applies to New Mexico’s trophy districts, there is excellent hunting in other units as well. From a management perspective, units fall into two categories: “quality” units that are managed for bigger bulls with low hunter densities, and “opportunity” units that have higher tag allotments to give more people a shot at an elk. Hunter success rates typically run from 35 to 50 percent in the quality units with many of the bulls killed being 6 years old or older. But hunters in the opportunity units do very well by most standards. Success rates run from about 12-30 percent. Though much fewer in number, Liley notes that bulls in the 300 to 350-inch Boone & Crockett class crop up in opportunity units as well as the quality areas.

Overall, the state’s elk population is stable to slightly increasing. Liley is enthusiastic about recent habitat work with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, especially in the southwest. These enhancements consist of burning and thinning pinyon-juniper stands, which benefits other wildlife species along with elk.

The state’s primary concentration of elk is on 54,000 acres of public land in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in the southwest. The state will offer 326 permits, but chances of pulling a tag are rough—less than one percent. Abutting the refuge, the 100,000‑acre Fort Sill Army base also supports elk, but allows only military and civilian personnel to hunt them. Elk also inhabit private lands in the area. According to Rod Smith, the southwest regional coordinator for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife, habitat in the Wichita Mountains is very stable and productive, ideal for nurturing elk.

In addition to the Wichita Mountains herd, two smaller populations are found in the northeast and southeast on private land, and a number of state Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) including Spavinaw and Cookson Hills. Thanks to Elk Foundation grant money, wildlife managers have enhanced enough habitat to fuel Smith’s optimism for the future. “We’re opening heavily forested areas to improve feeding and calving areas,” he says. The treatments combine thinning and controlled burns. Although fall hunting prospects are excellent statewide, Smith cautions that hunting on private land requires written landowner permission and that most private holdings are already tied up with hunters.

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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