Snake River elk

Snake River elk, which populate private lands, are seen in Jackson Hole in 2016. 

As elk hunters begin the general rifle season they’ll pursue animals that the Game and Fish Department found to be 32% above its population objective in the bulk of the state’s herds.

Game and Fish Department workers counted or modeled the population in 28 of 35 elk herds in their 2019 post-hunt census published this spring. They reported 104,700 elk in those 28 herds — a number that is 32%, or 25,575, above the collective objective.

Biologists made “field estimates” for the seven other herds, which add another 8,200 elk for a Wyoming total of 112,900 elk. The elk hunting archery season opened Sept. 1 and rifle season opens in many areas in late September or October.

The outlook is good for hunters, said Doug Brimeyer, wildlife management coordinator with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “It’s definitely the decade of the elk,” Brimeyer told WyoFile. “Elk hunting should be really good for people this year.”

Game and Fish anticipates 61,048 hunters will take to the field this season, up from almost 54,000 last year. They should kill 25,469 elk, according to agency projections, up from 22,644 last year.

Hunters can hold licenses authorizing them to kill up to three elk, although there are restrictions on sex and hunt areas. There are still 500 licenses available for cow or calf elk in one area near Laramie where “non-residents can probably find a place to get on this fall,” Brimeyer said.

“If you’re an elk hunter, it doesn’t get any better than it is now in Wyoming,” he said.

The big-picture statewide view masks some local situations, Brimeyer said. Regional managers operate on a herd-unit scale. Herds contain anywhere from several hundred to 11,000 elk.

Nevertheless, only 17% of the herds are below objective, the agency wrote in a summary earlier this year. The agency considers herds to be at objective if they are within 20%, plus or minus, of the actual population goal.

The agency manages seven herds on a “hunter satisfaction” basis in which the agency strives to satisfy 60% of hunters as determined by surveys. Biologists make “field estimates” of those herds’ numbers, but none has a population objective.

Game and Fish formed its 2020 season after considering the department’s estimates and counts of the 2019 post-hunt elk population. It made those estimates and counts after 2019 hunter success had been calculated or in early 2020 when elk congregated on winter ranges.

Spring births then added to the herd sizes.

Game and Fish expects hunters to spend 431,355 “recreation days” hunting in 2020, up from 413,827 in 2019. The department estimates that for every elk killed in 2020, hunters will spend 16.9 days in the field, down from 18 in 2019.

That includes time spent by both successful and unsuccessful hunters.

The agency expects 41.7% of hunters to be successful this year compared to 42.1% in 2019.

General elk licenses for Wyoming residents cost $57. Non-residents pay $692. In 2019 Game and Fish sold 69,969 elk licenses. Of those, 42,036 or 78% were resident licenses and 11,807 or 22% went to out-of-staters.

Game and Fish is urging successful hunters in the state’s 2020 elk brucellosis monitoring hunt area to submit blood samples for testing. The department has mailed 8,000 test kits to license holders in the area and urges others to get kits from their local offices.

Game and Fish also is asking successful hunters in the 2020 chronic wasting disease monitoring elk focus areas to get their elk tested. This can be done for free at a game check station or regional office.

Hunters also can extract a lymph node and submit it to Game and Fish. Results are usually returned in three weeks, the agency says. For $30, the Wyoming State Veterinary Lab in Laramie can process a test in about 10 days.

“Quarter and freeze your animal until test results are returned to save on meat processing costs if your animal is positive,” the agency wrote in a recent release promoting the tests. Game and Fish also recommends hunters follow CWD transport and disposal laws.

While the public generally enjoys bountiful wildlife, there’s a downside to having an overabundance of elk, Brimeyer said.

“When you look at these winter ranges across Wyoming, there’s only so many mouths that can be fed from the forage that’s there,” he said. Because elk and mule deer share the same winter range in many places, “something’s got to give,” he said.

“Elk are really good at using the landscape,” Brimeyer said. “They out-compete smaller animals.”

He pointed to the Rock Springs area, where “the public loves the elk [but where] the elk are likely impacting deer numbers.

“We know mule deer are struggling,” Brimeyer said. “We can’t keep letting the elk population grow. They will have impacts on the range. We’d like to see a balance out there.”

Game and Fish faces a challenge where private land dominates some hunt areas and public access is limited. Outside Greybull, for example “land ownership and topographical constraints limits the cow harvest necessary to curb population growth,” Game and Fish Biologist Sam Stephens wrote this spring about elk in Hunt Area 41.

On ranches, elk damage crops for which the agency is generally responsible. The agency works with landowners to increase hunter access to private land, Brimeyer said.

In Jackson Hole, home to the state’s second-largest herd behind the Laramie Peak/Muddy Mountain Herd, elk populate semi-rural subdivisions and other protected areas like southern Grand Teton National Park. Known as suburban elk, Snake River elk or short-distance migrants, this segment of the Jackson Herd has been growing.

Meanwhile, migrating elk that summer in traditional backcountry areas have dwindled proportionately. “We, of course, would rather see them migrating” from the backcountry, Brimeyer said.

These challenges have vexed managers of the Jackson Herd for years. Despite the problems, the 2019 post-hunt count of the Jackson Herd was 10,985 — within 25 animals of the 11,000-elk objective. That’s the number on which the current hunting season is based.

The Jackson number is “a raw count,” Game and Fish Jackson Biologist Aly Courtemanch said. She uses no modeling or estimating to supplement the observations made by ground and aerial teams.

Game and Fish adjusts its hunting seasons and quotas to target the suburban elk and allow the wilderness segments to flourish. Regulations in Courtemanch’s region, for example, seek to protect cow and calf elk that summer in those backcountry and wilderness areas. Hunters can still pursue antlered elk among the migrating animals, Courtemanch said, but regulations protect the “reproductive segment” of the herd.

Another example of that strategy was the decision to keep Area 79 northeast of Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park closed to the park’s unique elk reduction program for the second year in a row. A Grand Teton study showed that long-distance migrants use the area heavily, but the short-distance migrants do not.

“That was a major reason we made that decision,” Courtemanch said. At the same time, regulations focus hunters on short-distance migrating cows and calves, she said.

For all the planning, research and strategizing, some simple factors like weather may have a big influence on how the elk hunting season progresses.

Game and Fish Pinedale Biologist Dean Clause wrote this spring how weather affected the size of a Sublette County herd. “As a result of mild fall weather conditions during 2018 and 2019, hunting success and overall harvest rates have declined in this herd,” his 2020 report reads.

Courtemanch seconded his assessment. Hunters are successful, she said, “when we get snow in the fall.”

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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