Elk Forecast 2011: The Golden Age of Elk Hunting

My friend P.J. DelHomme has spent much of his summer compiling population estimates and hunting outlooks for elk in every corner of this country, and what he discovered is both encouraging and remarkable.

We have more elk on the ground now than at any time in recent history. We have bigger bulls. More antlerless tags. More hunting opportunities. And much of this success is directly attributable to the hard work of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and its network of passionate volunteers.

P.J. makes the case that we may well be in the "Golden Era" of elk hunting in North America. The trends certainly point that way, and one of the remarkable details as you read his hunting forecast is that even in drought conditions, even after catastrophic wildfires, even after harsh winters that have depressed populations of other species, elk tend to thrive.

That's a testament to the hardiness of the critters, but it's also the best evidence that healthy habitat is the essential ingredient insuring healthy elk populations. As long as they have intact landscapes where they can survive tough conditions, elk will make it. And, as P.J. notes, elk are making a very good living almost everywhere.

Here's his national forecast in alphabetical order.
Alaska
Elk Population: Etolin (GMU 3) 300-400, Kodiak Archipelago (GMU 8) N/A
Bull/Cow Ratio: GMU 3 19/100
Nonresidents: $85 license, $300 elk permit
Hunter Success: GMU 3 13 percent, GMU 8 N/A
Highlights: Most elk in GMU 3 reside within the formidable South Etolin
Island Wilderness on Etolin Island, where 48 hunters braved the bush to kill
six bulls last season. Calf recruitment is good at 51 calves to every 100
cows. Numbers for GMU 8 on the Kodiak Archipelago were not available at
press time, but the area has yielded some impressive Roosevelt's bulls in
the past few years. Visit www.wildlife.alaska.gov.

Alberta
Elk Population: 33,000
Bull/Cow Ratio: N/A
Nonresidents: $255, must hire a guide
Hunter Success: N/A
Highlights: Elk populations in the foothills of the Rockies, especially west
of Rocky Mountain House, this year felt the combined impact of months of
deep snow and predation by wolves, mountain lions and grizzlies. However,
range is expanding as elk pioneer new territory to the south and east, with
some respectable bulls among them. Meat hunters should look at agricultural
zones where liberal permits for cows are available. Outfitters receive
roughly 10 percent of the draw tags. Visit www.srd.alberta.ca.

Arizona
Elk Population: 25,000-35,000
Bull/Cow Ratio: 35/100
Nonresidents: $151 license (nonrefundable) plus $595 elk permit
Hunter Success: 31 percent general, 39 percent muzzleloader, 24 percent
archery
Highlights: The Wallow fire burned over 520,000 acres in Units 1 and 27 and
many elk have been displaced to other areas. A silver lining? These units
could see even more monster bulls in coming years if forage responds as it
did following the massive Rodeo-Chediski fire in 2002. A mild winter meant
low stress on elk but also led to a dry spring--hence the massive wildfires.
Arizona Game and Fish Department's "Hunt Arizona" offers a great resource on
harvest data, drawing odds and hunting pressure. Visit www.azgfd.gov.

Arkansas
Elk Population: 440
Bull/Cow Ratio: 40/100
Nonresidents: Auction and landowner tags
Hunter Success: 63 percent
Highlights: Elk permits are available to landowners in a five-county area,
with 23 permits issued under a quota system. Anyone who owns property in
those counties, whether or not they are a resident, qualifies for the
drawing. Nonresidents who buy a lifetime license also are eligible for the
drawing. Public land hunters will find elk using an increasing number and
quality of managed forage openings on the Ozark National Forest and Gene
Rush WMA. Visit www.agfc.com.

British Columbia
Elk Population: 63,000
Bull/Cow Ratio: 25-30/100
Nonresidents: $180 license plus $250 elk permit, must hire a guide
Hunter Success: N/A
Highlights: Rocky Mountain elk herds are thriving, with the agricultural
zones in the Peace River region a great bet. For a backcountry experience,
look to the Omineca region in north-central BC. If you've always dreamed of
hunting a trophy Roosevelt's bull, the stars are aligned for a great season.
No limits or quotas have changed since last season, and limited-entry tags
are still a tough draw at roughly 35/1. Outfitters are allotted a percentage
of those tags and you can bypass the long odds by booking a hunt. The $430
cost for a license and permit is a relative bargain. Visit
www.env.gov.bc.ca/fw.

California
Elk Population: 11,400 (1,500 Rocky Mountain, 6,000 Roosevelt's, 3,900 tule)
Bull/Cow Ratios: 20/100 to 90/100
Nonresidents: $151 license (nonrefundable to enter drawing) plus $1,200 elk
permit
Hunter Success: 75 percent
Highlights: The West's best hunter success rates and world-class bulls of
all three sub-species await those who beat tag lottery odds ranging from
100/1 to 1,000/1. This could be the year a tule world record is broken. The
largest brutes are in the East Park Reservoir and Grizzly Island units. Good
spring rains should have racks in prime shape. For a backcountry experience,
try Marble Mountain Wilderness, which offers 35 bull tags, 10 antlerless and
5 late-season muzzleloader/archery either-sex tags. Everyone has a shot
here, as 10 of those tags (nine bull and one cow) are randomly drawn while
the other 30 are weighted for preference points. Visit www.dfg.ca.gov.

Colorado
Elk Population: 283,400
Bull/Cow Ratio: 32/100
Nonresidents: $354 cow, $554 any elk
Hunter Success: 22 percent
Highlights: Colorado is an ideal destination with more than 23 million acres
of public land, almost twice as many elk as any other state,
over-the-counter bull tags (OTC), and an informative call-center. Rifle tags
for bulls in the 2nd and 3rd season are unlimited and sold at outlets all
over the state. Leftover draw tags went on sale August 9 and some may still
be available. OTC rifle tags for cows are limited, but OTC antlerless
archery tags are wide open in the northwest and southeast corners. The past
few years have been moist with heavy snows and wet springs, which have kept
forage lush and antler growth robust. Visit
www.wildlife.state.co.us/Hunting.

Idaho
Elk Population: 103,000
Bull/Cow Ratio: 23/100
Nonresidents: $155 license, $417 elk tag
Hunter Success: 19 percent
Highlights: The Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is being hammered by wolf
predation exacerbated by a long slide in forage quality. Elk populations are
far below management objectives in the Lolo and Selway zones and slightly
below objectives in the Sawtooth zone. Elk hunting isn't what it used
to be in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, either. Statewide,
elk tag sales fell from 92,565 in 2008 to 84,765 in 2010--a decline of about
8 percent. But not all the news from Idaho is bad. Populations at or above
objectives in 20 of 29 elk hunt zones, and the statewide population actually
broke a long plummet and grew by 2,000 animals from last year. Hunters
should look to the southern and western portions of the state, as well as
areas like the Owyhee-South Hills Zone, where hunters can now chase
antlerless elk August through December. Visit www.fishandgame.idaho.gov.

Kansas
Elk Population: 250-275
Bull/Cow Ratio: 40/100
Nonresidents: Tenant permits and one Commissioner's Permit, usually sold at
auction
Hunter Success: 36 percent
Highlights: This past season was a tough one for Kansas elk hunters. On Fort
Riley, where most of the state's elk roam, hunters had their second-lowest
success rate since the hunt began there in 1987. This year, 10 either-sex
and 15 antlerless tags are available. Mammoth bulls exist but don't come
easily. The state's other main elk herd roams the opposite corner far to the
southwest in the Cimarron National Grasslands. The Grasslands themselves are
closed to hunting, but over-the-counter unlimited permits are available for
surrounding private lands. Visit www.kdwp.state.ks.us.

Kentucky
Elk Population: 10,000
Bull/Cow Ratio: 35-40/100
Nonresidents: $10 to apply, $130 license, $365 elk permit
Hunter Success: 65 percent
Highlights: The toughest part here is beating the odds in the drawing. This
year, 61,500 applicants vied for 800 elk hunting permits, with 80 permits
reserved for the nearly 19,000 nonresidents who applied. But elk look to be
plentiful. A calf recruitment ratio of roughly 85/100 means nearly 2,000
more elk hit the ground each year. Also, hunting success was down last year
as the acorn crop was big and the elk stayed in the hardwoods and out of the
open, plus ice and snowstorms coincided with key weekends. This year,
managers have dropped the 4-point or better antler restriction. Visit
www.fw.ky.gov.

Manitoba
Elk Population: 6,100
Bull/Cow Ratio: 45/100
Residents only
Hunter Success: 20-60 percent rifle, 5-10 percent archery
Highlights: You have to live in the province to draw an elk permit, and
they're avidly sought. Some very large bulls roam this country. The Duck
Mountain, Interlake and Porcupine regions are all consistent trophy
producers. The province has numerous elk seasons running from late August
through December. Visit www.gov.mb.ca/conservation/wildlife/hunting/.

Michigan
Elk Population: 780
Bull/Cow Ratio: 60/100
Residents only
Hunter Success: 70-90 percent
Highlights: Managers have the elk population where they want it and are in
maintenance mode, which explains why available elk permits dropped by
roughly 30 percent. Applications this year were down slightly, with 35,000
people vying for 55 any-elk and 100 antlerless tags. Improving timber
management and habitat on public land should mean more elk hunting
opportunity in the future. Visit www.michigan.gov/dnrhunting.

Minnesota
Elk Population: 175
Bull/Cow Ratio: 50/100
Residents only
Hunter Success: 72 percent
Highlights: Less than 1,000 hunters applied in 2010 for the dozen
once-in-a-lifetime elk tags available (at $250 each). But a widely
publicized monster bull scoring 458-4/8 was found in Minnesota last year,
and word got out that this state can grow massive trophies. No word yet on
whether applications rose. The state has two herds. Managers counted 35-40
elk in the Grygla herd, which is a couple more than what the management plan
calls for, and 141 elk in the "border herd." Visit
www.dnr.state.mn.us/hunting/elk.

Montana
Elk Population: 150,000
Bull/Cow Ratio: 5-25/100
Nonresidents: $812
Hunter Success: 16 percent
Highlights: The biggest news for nonresidents is the 37 percent jump in the
price of an elk permit. A ballot initiative last November abolished 5,500
outfitter-sponsored licenses and forced all nonresident hunters into the
drawing. For those who drew a bull tag in the Bear Paws or Big Snowies, the
higher fees could be money well spent, as the bulls there are growing old
and big. Winter was tough in parts of central and eastern Montana, but elk
in the legendary Missouri River Breaks came through fine. Hunters would be
smart to look at Region 3, which yields almost 50 percent of the annual elk
harvest, including some big bulls. Wolves have taken a brutal toll on some
herds. In the Danaher Basin of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, cow/calf ratios
are just 9/100, down from a long-term average of 24/100. Herds in the West
Fork of the Bitterroot and the lower Clark Fork watershed are in steep
decline, and the famed northern Yellowstone herd continues to plummet. Visit
www.fwp.mt.gov.

Nebraska
Elk Population: 2,300
Bull/Cow Ratio: 50/50
Residents only
Hunter Success: 61 percent
Highlights: Landowners are allotted one-third of all elk tags, and this
year, both landowners and the general public will have the best opportunity
in a decade with 294 tags, up 22 from last year. For public-land hunters,
the rugged Pine Ridge in the northern panhandle offers good odds as three
units there hold more than half the state's elk herd, two-thirds of the
total permit allocation and more than 100,000 acres of public land.
Visit www.outdoornebraska.ne.gov/hunting.

Nevada
Elk Population: 13,500
Bull/Cow Ratio: 32/100
Nonresidents: $142 license plus $1,200 tag
Hunter Success: 47 percent
Highlights: Through the drawing, an elk tag costs well over a grand, and
that's a steal compared to the 89 private landowner tags that sold for more
than $7,800 on average last year. But 66 percent of the bulls killed last
year were six-points or better, many of them jaw-droppers. Nevada's herd has
grown dramatically, swelling by 10 percent this year alone. That's great
news for residents who get 4,600 tags--a good thousand more than last year.
Nonresidents are allotted 133 and odds of drawing one were 1/44 in 2009.
Visit www.ndow.org/hunt.

New Mexico
Elk Population: 75,000-95,000
Bull/Cow Ratio: 40-45/100
Nonresidents: $555 standard bull, $780 quality bull
Hunter Success: 33 percent
Highlights: A mild winter and expected monsoons should have elk in top shape
this fall. The state is split roughly into 30 percent "quality" units (big
bulls, small odds) and 70 percent "opportunity" units. Hunters looking for
plenty of opportunity should focus on the north-central units including Unit
36 where elk herds continue to grow and managers have issued more permits.
For last-minute nonresident hunters with cash to spend, landowner tags are
your ticket. Hunters will have a little more time to get their bull this
year, with shooting hours expanded to 30 minutes before sunrise and after
sunset. Visit www.wildlife.state.nm.us.

North Dakota
Elk Population: 1,200
Bull/Cow Ratio: N/A
Nonresidents: One raffle tag available
Hunter Success: 49 percent
Highlights: For the past few years, North Dakota has had far more elk than
managers wanted. That changed last fall and winter as hunters in Theodore
Roosevelt National Park culled 406 elk out of an estimated 950. Managers
still hope to get numbers under 400 and another shoot is likely this year.
Outside of the park, elk can be found in the northeast corner and along the
west-central border, with estimated numbers at around 450. Other small herds
are scattered in pockets throughout the state. This year, managers will
issue 500 tags--355 any-sex and 145 antlerless tags. Visit
www.gf.nd.gov/hunting.

Oklahoma
Elk Population: 2,200
Bull/Cow Ratio: N/A
Nonresidents: $306
Hunter Success: N/A
Highlights: Only 85 public-land permits were available this year, down from
330 last year. The largest herd and best opportunity is on the Wichita
Mountains Wildlife Refuge. A few small herds are scattered in the northeast
and southeast corners of the state with one permit available for those
areas. Residents looking to pull one of these once-in-a-lifetime tags have
less than a 1 percent chance. But there is no quota on private-land elk and
hunting access can be had for a fee. Visit www.wildlifedepartment.com.

Ontario
Elk Population: 700
Bull/Cow Ratio: 30/100
Residents only
Hunter Success: N/A
Highlights: Thirteen years after RMEF helped reintroduce elk to Ontario, the
province will hold its first modern elk hunt this year. Between 300-775 elk
reside in the Bancroft-North Hastings area in the southern end of the
province where the hunt will take place. Lucky hunters now hold 24 bull tags
and 46 cow tags for the late-September hunt. Visit www.ontario.ca/hunting.

Oregon
Elk Population: 125,000 (65,000 Rocky Mountain, 60,000 Roosevelt's)
Bull/Cow Ratio: 19/100 Rocky Mountain, 13/100 Roosevelt's
Nonresidents: $141 license, $501 tag
Hunter Success: 16 percent Rocky Mountain, 12 percent Roosevelt's
Highlights: Much of eastern Oregon saw record snowfall in the mountains, and
biologists are hopeful that elk populations came out unscathed. Bowhunters
can prowl most of the east side with only a general tag. For rifle hunters,
nearly everything east of the Cascades is permit-only, save for a
second-season rifle hunt in a few units of the northeast. Roosevelt's elk
tags are still over-the-counter (except for the far northwest and southwest
corners), herds are strong and there are some beasts on the hoof. This
season, hunters 17 and under are required to wear a hunter orange hat or
vest when hunting any big game with any firearm. Visit www.dfw.state.or.us.

Pennsylvania
Elk Population: 750
Bull/Cow ratio: 28/100
Nonresidents: $101 license, $250 elk tag
Hunter success: 80 percent
Highlights: It's been reported before and here it is again: Pennsylvania
could produce a bull this year that breaks not only state but also world
records. Along with antler size, elk populations and hunter opportunity are
growing. With the herd up 7 percent over last year, the state is offering 10
more antlerless tags for a total of 18 bull permits and 38 antlerless. Odds
for drawing remain slim (around 1/1000), but if you do pull the coveted tag,
the state boasts the highest success rate in North America. And more than
half of the elk live on over a million acres of public land. Visit
www.pgc.state.pa.us.

Saskatchewan
Elk Population: 16,000
Bull/Cow Ratio: 20/100
Residents only
Hunter Success: 23 percent
Highlights: It was a tough winter across much of the province, and the
central and northeast areas saw high deer mortality and some elk mortality.
Near the town of Hudson Bay, though, where the prairie meets the forest,
managers have implemented a bulls-only season, followed by an either-sex
season--all of which can be had with over-the-counter tags. In the south,
elk populations are on the rise and each year seems to bring new hunting
opportunities. New in 2011 are antlerless seasons in zones 21, north of
Regina, and 52, south of Prince Albert. Visit
www.environment.gov.sk.ca/hunting.

South Dakota
Elk Population: 3,200
Bull/Cow Ratio: 34/100
Residents only
Hunter Success: 53 percent
Highlights: There are several small prairie herds scattered across the
state, but managers want to see the Black Hills herd grow to roughly 4,000.
They aim to increase hunter opportunity in the long term, which means
decreased hunter opportunity in the short term. Managers cut any-elk rifle
tags by 25 to 470. Antlerless tags took an even bigger hit, dropping from
570 to 395. Visit www.sdgfp.info/wildlife/hunting.

Tennessee
Elk Population: 300-400
Bull/Cow Ratio: N/A
Nonresidents: 1 permit to nonresidents and 1 auction tag
Hunter Success: 60 percent
Highlights: Tennessee's elk population is holding steady but the ultimate
goal is a herd of 2,000 animals. Managers are working to expand and improve
elk range while keeping hunt permits conservative. Only four permits are
available for residents. Last year, two of those hunters failed to fill
their tags. Visit www.state.tn.us/twra/elkmain.html.

Utah
Elk Population: 72,500
Bull/Cow Ratio: N/A
Nonresidents: $80 license plus $280 to $1,500 permit
Hunter Success: 17 percent
Highlights: Utah has produced a staggering number of record-book bulls over
the past decade. The state's largest herds are found in the Wasatch, Plateau
and Fish Lake units, which should produce some serious antler growth this
year on the heels of a particularly wet spring. The fact that the overall
population continues to grow as well is testament to good management. The
state issued 1,200 more cow tags and 1,250 more spike permits this fall.
Odds are still tough for limited-entry tags. Nonresidents get 10 percent of
available rifle tags. Visit www.wildlife.utah.gov/hunting/biggame.

Washington
Elk Population: 55,000-60,000
Bull/Cow Ratio: 12-20/100
Nonresidents: $434 (will increase to $497 before season starts)
Hunter Success: 8 percent general, 39 percent for special limited-entry
permits
Highlights: The state's elk population is divided about evenly between
Roosevelt's in the west and Rocky Mountain elk to the east. In the famous
Blue Mountains of southeast Washington, resident and nonresident hunters
alike will find over-the-counter spike tags readily available. Highly-prized
permits for branch-antlered bulls will be far tougher to come by. The Yakima
herd has improved and this year the area has increased antlerless permits.
In the Mount St. Helens area, managers are still trying to decrease herd
numbers with more special permits for antlerless elk. Both nonresident and
resident hunters should take note that elk tag fees will jump nearly 15
percent effective September 1 to help cover budget shortfalls. Visit
www.wdfw.wa.gov/hunting.

Wyoming
Elk Population: 120,000
Bull/Cow Ratio: 23/100
Nonresidents: $591 permit, $302 cow-calf permit, $1,071 special permit
Hunter Success: 44 percent
Highlights: Last year, hunters harvested 25,600 elk, up from the five-year
average of 21,000. Biologists say mature bulls continue to thrive in most
hunting units and the statewide population remains above management
objectives. The dark exception is the state's northwest corner. Elk numbers
in the Clark's Fork and Cody herds are still down due to predation and poor
habitat. The Jackson herd that summers in Yellowstone is well off the mark,
too, and managers are being conservative on tags. Roughly half the hunting
units just outside the park have set quotas, one is closed and rest are
limited to antlered elk only. Visit www.gf.state.wy.us/wildlife/hunting.
**
Yukon Territory**
Elk Population: 250-300
Bull/Cow Ratio: 24/100
Residents only
Hunter Success: 52 percent
Highlights: With two distinct herds, Takhini and Braeburn, the territory
held its first elk hunt in a quarter-century in 2009, and followed it with a
second hunt last year. Those hunts were overwhelmingly successful--too
successful. Hunters had a 73 percent success rate on bulls and a 31 percent
success rate on cows. So this year managers are offering cow-only permits to
lighten the pressure on bulls while reducing overall herd numbers down to
management objectives. The target bull/cow ratio for the area is 50/100.
Visit www.environmentyukon.gov.yk.ca.

Photo: Larry1732