If there was ever one factor that changes the outlook for a hunting unit, it is an elk’s battle with Old Man Winter. Winter kills more animals than any other factor and can have lingering effects on the population for many years to come. If there is too much snow early in the winter elk can get trapped in the high country and starve. If they leave too soon they become easy targets for hunters, and units with high objectives can see tag numbers drop drastically or in extreme cases an early closure. A late winter can mean high calf mortality rates and a late bloom for all of the grass cows need to stay healthy while nursing. No other single factor can play as large a role in the health of the elk herds across the West.
Elk living on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole appear to have made it through the winter with a relatively low mortality rate according to an article in the Billings Gazette. The official count for 2013/14 is 8,300 animals which is up 30% from last year. According to biologists this is the highest number of elk to live on the refuge since 1998. If you are an optimist about growing elk populations this is confirmation that elk hunting in the Cowboy State is on the rise. This could also mean that more snow forced the elk to lower elevations than in previous years. Regardless, numbers on the refuge are on the rise.
With a healthy spring thaw and green grass starting to show, the refuge has also decided to stop supplemental feeding for the year. Steady plant growth in the spring will mean healthy front-end antler growth for the elk living in the greater Jackson Hole area. If the summer proves to be as wet as this past winter, there is potential for some great trophies to be taken.
Elk wintering in the Steamboat, Colorado area are doing well in their battle for survival. Despite heavy snow and some colder temperatures the elk seem to have done well this winter and that could mean a good season for hunters in north-central Colorado.
In stark contrast to the announcements of low winter kills in Wyoming and Colorado, Montana is proactively adjusting their management plans due to a long winter in the southwest portion of the state. Sections of land that are closed to the public for the winter won’t open now until May 15 in order to give the elk as much time on the winter range as possible while snow melts. Activities like camping and shed hunting push elk into the higher elevations where deep snow and a lack of feed would spell bad news for the elk that made it through the winter in this area so far.
Idaho has updated their 10 year plan for elk management with an objective of 75,000 elk across the state. The last plan hasn’t been updated in close to 15 years according to Toby Boudreau and is due for an upgrade. Idaho plans to manage for hunter opportunity across the state which most Idaho residents will like. The plan will take things like winter kill into account and residents should pay attention to changes made to the A/B tag system in units they plan to apply for. Harvest quotas will be set with the new 10 year plan in mind and numbers could change significantly from last year.
Idaho also spent $30,000.00 this past winter to combat the high number of wolves in the Lolo zone. Twenty-three were killed by helicopter and more may be done in the future. Apex predators like the wolf thrive in the winter when they can travel across the snow much easier and quicker than an ungulate. Twenty-three fewer wolves feeding on wintering elk means higher numbers heading into the spring. Pro-active responses to predators like this will benefit the elk in Idaho and Montana for years to come, especially on the winter grounds.
The overall prospects for elk hunting are a mixed bag across the states with better than average draws and OTC opportunities for elk hunters. Stay tuned to the blog and E-News; we will be updating all of you on the drought conditions across the southwest and Nevada next! Do your research carefully this draw season and you could find an area that made it through the winter with good elk numbers and quality antlers!