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Idaho State News

Elk Hunters Should Find Plenty of Elk in Most of the State

BOISE – Idaho’s general, any-weapon elk seasons are getting underway, and rifle hunters are following archers in pursuit of one of Idaho’s most prized game and they can look forward to healthy herds in most parts of the state. 

To learn about general elk hunting seasons, see the 2022 Idaho Big Game Seasons and Rules.

Idaho has fairly stable elk herds that have produced harvests above 20,000 elk annually for the last eight years. The elk harvest dropped about 10 percent last year, but was well within the usual year-to-year fluctuations and just below the 10-year average of 20,804 elk. In 2021, hunters harvested 20,396 elk with an overall success rate of 23 percent for elk hunters. 

Check out an earlier report for the full 2021 deer and elk harvest stats.

Elk Hunting

Elk populations tend to swing less drastically and sporadically than deer, and last year marked the eighth year in a row where elk harvest eclipsed 20,000, which has happened only one other time dating back to the 1930s.

Antlered elk dropped only slightly, from 11,897 in 2020 to 11,142 last year. Antlerless elk saw a slightly bigger drop (roughly 14.9 percent) in harvest numbers, from 2020 to 2021. Earlier that year, Fish and Game officials introduced new seasons aimed at reducing the number of elk in certain areas where they are well above objective or are infringing on private property.

Fish and Game Deer/Elk Coordinator Toby Boudreau believes we will see much of the same, if not better conditions for elk this fall.

“Elk populations are stable-to-increasing. With better science and more camera estimates, I think we are trending to more elk than we’ve ever seen in Idaho,” he said.

Overall, hunters can expect to see another impressive year, similar to 2021. A wet spring will also be good for antler growth, and there is likely a higher population of younger bulls out in the field this year.

Speaking of young bulls, next to hunter harvest reports, trapping and collaring elk calves is the most reliable tool Fish and Game biologists use to estimate survival. Elk have not been trapped and collared for as long as mule deer, and elk calves typically survive at a higher rate than mule deer fawns.

Last winter’s 78 percent survival is at the upper end of that range and indicates a growing elk herd. (By comparison, survival rates ranged from a low of about 52 percent to a high of 84 percent in 2014-15.)

Many are wondering if this year’s high winter calf survival is going to potentially pave the way for another 20,000-plus harvest year, which would be only the second time in history that elk harvest over 20,000 has spanned nine consecutive years.

“Elk numbers are sustainable right now,” said Boudreau, and added that many elk populations have shifted over the last four decades.

“We’re seeing elk in different places than they’ve historically been, and their numbers are still on the rise,” he said.

The general redistribution of elk throughout the state is not a bad thing and can be linked to a handful of factors.

“Wildfire,” Boudreau says, “is a wildcard that can have a heavy impact both on mule deer habitat and elk habitat.”

A large wildfire can wipe out large portions of bitterbrush and sagebrush and initially regrow as grass which provides a better diet for elk. While this is bad news for mule deer, elk often thrive in these situations.

“Because of this shift in forage, we’re seeing elk relocating to these drier, post-wildfire regions that mule deer don’t find as suitable,” Boudreau said.

Elk are also finding agricultural lands too tempting to pass up, and harvests in recent years also include a higher number of depredation hunts where elk are damaging crops.

But overall, there remains plenty of elk for hunters to pursue in most regions of the state, including lots of general hunting opportunities. Elk hunters need to be diligent at finding areas where elk want to be, and not dwell in areas where the hunters want them to be, but the elk aren’t there.

Statistics graphic provided by IDFG:

By The Numbers | 2021 Harvest

  • Total elk harvest in 2021: 20,396
  • 2020 harvest total: 22,776
  • Overall hunter success rate: 22.9 percent
  • Antlered: 11,142
  • Antlerless: 9,253
  • Taken during general hunts: 12,778 (17.6 percent success rate)
  • Taken during controlled hunts: 7,619 (41.5 percent success rate)

How It Stacks Up

Although slightly fewer hunters took home slightly fewer elk, 2021 still shows to be in line with the 10-year average (20,804). Antlered elk dropped only slightly, from 11,897 in 2020 to 11,142 last year. Antlerless elk saw a slightly bigger drop (roughly 14.9 percent) in harvest numbers, from 2020 to 2021.