As elk hunting season begins sportsmen and -women will find — or seek to find — more than 104,800 elk in the state, a figure 31 percent above Wyoming Game and Fish Department objectives.
The figures — presented to the agency’s civilian commissioners earlier this year — are based on exhaustive January 2018 field surveys and mathematical estimates. Since then elk have calved, sending numbers even higher.
Wildlife managers consider habitat, hunting opportunity, elk damage to private property and other factors in setting the statewide objective of 80,000. The figures presented to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission in April put the 2017 post-hunt population 25,800 animals above objective.
Hunters killed 24,535 wapiti last season according to Game and Fish. The agency expects hunters to harvest 25,302 this hunting season as it works to bring herds closer to objective.
But opportunities and hunters’ experiences in the field may vary significantly from region to region.
An unequal bounty
Elk hunting is expected to be good across wide parts of the state, Game and Fish employees wrote in a season forecast delivered to commissioners in April. Though success is frequently weather-dependent and many hunters count on snow to both drive elk from the high country and facilitate tracking, elk numbers should not be the limiting factor
Wyoming counts elk across 35 herds and Game and Fish reports 80 percent of those herds are at or above their objective populations. Managers consider a herd to be at objective if its population is within 20 percent of — above or below — the target number.
The agency has changed how it establishes objectives, however, making comparisons of recent years difficult, Game and Fish Deputy Chief of Wildlife Doug Brimeyer said in a telephone interview.
After the 2017 hunting season Game and Fish counted 16 herds at objective — within 20 percent of the target. It found 12 herds above objective, five herds below objective and two herds for which there was not enough information.
Around Cody, wapiti abound. “Elk populations in the southern Bighorn Basin continue to do well,” the forecast reads. “The North Bighorn elk herd remains healthy and productive, and there should be a good opportunity to harvest an elk again in 2018.”
Around Lander, “like much of Wyoming, elk populations are doing well,” the spring report reads. The same holds near Laramie with populations above objectives and high calf numbers despite a harsh winter. A low harvest in the Pinedale area last year left herds there at or above objective levels, the report says.
Six elk herds in the Green River area “are currently above the agreed upon post-season population objectives, some significantly so,” the report reads. Around Casper “elk numbers remain at or above objective levels in all herds.”
In one of the state’s premiere elk regions — Teton County — the picture is more complex.
The resurgence of predators in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks and the prevalence of private-land safe zones have helped upset the advantages once enjoyed by hunters. An increasing portion of the Jackson Elk Herd has abandoned familiar long-distance migration routes and spends time in areas shunned by grizzlies and wolves or where those predators have been removed or discouraged — areas that are often difficult to access or off-limits to most hunters.
Today “suburban elk” or “Snake River elk” that live on private ranches and subdivisions and nearby federal land where no hunting is allowed are out-reproducing their wilderness counterparts. “Elk that summer in southern Grand Teton National Park and near residential and agricultural areas close to Jackson have about double the calf recruitment as the long-distance migratory elk in backcountry areas,” Game and Fish’s April elk season forecast report says.
The result is an elk herd with decent population figures relative to objectives, but decreased hunting opportunity.
To remedy the “chronic” situation of elk damaging private agricultural and residential property, elk hunting on private land in the valley bottom of Jackson Hole began Aug. 15. That’s an early season opener compared to many national forest backcountry areas that generally open to rifle hunting in late September or October.
Game and fish used to issue 1,800 licenses to hunt elk in northern Jackson Hole, Brimeyer told commissioners in March, many of them allowing the shooting of female elk. But that portion of the Jackson Elk Herd is being outbred by suburban counterparts to the point that Game and Fish has issued no licenses to shoot antlerless elk north of the Gros Ventre River and south of Yellowstone National Park, areas which are almost exclusively public land, he said.
Predators complicate management
Wolves have also confounded Wyoming’s artificial feedground program and pushed elk off natural wintering areas in the Gros Ventre River drainage, Brimeyer told the commission. Game and Fish routinely saw 3,500 elk winter in the drainage each year, Brimeyer said. Last year, albeit a low-snow year in which the National Elk Refuge did not even feed elk, feeders in the Gros Ventre forked out hay to only 86 elk.
In his 2016 book, “Feeding Big Game in Western Wyoming,” former Wyoming Game and Fish employee Ron Dean documents feeding of 2,000 elk in the Gros Ventre area as early as 1936. From then through 2005, feeders at the Alkali, Patrol Cabin and Fish Creek feedgrounds fed an average of 1,994 elk a winter in the drainage.
But wolves unsettled things there starting in 1999, pushing elk from one feedground to another. Before wolves began keying in on the three Gros Ventre feedgrounds, each had some 600 to 700 wintering elk. When wolves arrived in numbers, feeders instead saw up to 2,000 elk congregate at one site while the others were largely abandoned.
When wolves were protected by the Endangered Species Act — most recently in 2017 — their numbers increased. Brimeyer said one pack grew to more than 20 members before pack dynamics took over and it broke up.
Game and Fish spent considerable money enhancing native winter range habitat in the area only to see elk abandon that natural forage under pressure from wolves, Brimeyer said.
Some Gros Ventre elk are known to have shifted drainages and moved to the Dubois area or the Upper Green River. Most moved down drainage to the National Elk Refuge.
In total, however, the Jackson Elk Herd, which includes the Gros Ventre elk, is very near the population objective of 11,000 according to the Game and Fish report.
Gros Ventre elk are faithful to their summer ranges, Brimeyer believes, so many may return there for hunting season. But hunting opportunities and licenses have been diminished nevertheless. “It’s a fairly emotional thing,” Brimeyer told the commission. One outfitter agreed.
Elk in the area are in a “crisis stage,” Brian Taylor, a third-generation rancher and operator of Gros Ventre Wilderness Outfitters, told commissioners in March. “What’s happened is a catastrophe.”
It will be difficult for sport hunters alone to trim wolf numbers, he said. He and his wife spent more than 30 days trying to hunt wolves. They finally shot two.
Game and Fish is allowing wolf hunters to hold up to two wolf licenses this year with the aim of killing 15 wolves in the Gros Ventre and Upper Green River hunting areas. For elk and elk hunters, however, Game and Fish’s task of balancing private and public land, predators and hunters, remains a changing puzzle.
“Managing for these widely varying population segments has always been and will continue to be a challenge in the Jackson Herd,” the reports to the commission say.
Still the best in the West
Statewide, abundance of elk and a rarity of hunters gives Wyoming hunters remarkable opportunities. Wyoming saw 56,505 hunters pursue elk last season, which made for a success rate of 43.4 percent, a figure considered high for big game.
Sportsmen and -women spent 441,933 days in the field hunting elk last year, amounting to about 18 days for every elk taken.
The numbers can be crunched in a different way to show that the average elk hunter spent about eight days in the field in 2017, whether successful or unsuccessful.
The statistics show that Wyoming may be the best place to hunt elk in the West, according to comparisons made by a sportsman on the website Backcountry Chronicles. Over the five years ending in 2016, Colorado hunters bagged an average of 43,631 elk a year, the most among seven states analyzed.
Backcountry Chronicles calculations involved states that issue what he calls “over-the-counter” elk licenses; Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and Colorado. The unnamed author excluded Arizona, California and Nevada from the analysis.
Wyoming was second in the number of elk bagged, averaging 25,768 over the period, the website said. But the Equality State had the fewest hunters among the states analyzed, averaging 58,100 a year, compared to Colorado’s 219,465, which was the most.