Elk never used to stay on the north side of Interstate 80 where the interstate slices through the tail end of the Snowy Range. They would mosey back and forth in the winter if high winds and accidents closed the road, but they almost always returned to the mountains.
Not anymore, said Lee Knox, wildlife biologist in Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Laramie region.
Now they’re living in a stretch of high plains and prairie they rarely used a decade ago.
Pick almost any area of the state, from the Bighorns to the Black Hills, Iron Mountain between Cheyenne and Laramie to the Uinta Range near Evanston, and you’ll hear stories of elk turning up in new places, of elk herds rising above objective even with liberal hunting seasons, and of hunters bringing home more and more elk. In fact, elk are at or above their population objective — the number set by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission — in most of the state’s herds.
That means for anyone hoping to hunt elk, or just catch a glimpse of their regal heads, iconic antlers, brown bodies and white rumps, this may be the best time since before settlers wiped out the species from much of the West.
“There’s more elk hunting opportunity and better elk hunting quality than there’s been in over a century,” said Justin Binfet, wildlife coordinator for Game and Fish’s Casper region.
Elk, like bighorn sheep, mule deer, buffalo and pronghorn, historically occupied much of the West. Tribes, including the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho, depended on them and often followed elk seasonal migration routes. Herds of six different subspecies of elk roamed much of the country with as many as 10 million animals.
But by the early 1900s, European settlers reduced total elk numbers to somewhere around 41,000. Two subspecies had gone extinct.
Then efforts to restore the Wapiti began.
In the northwest corner, before grizzly bear numbers increased, wolves returned and hunting spiked, herds grew in some areas to unprecedented numbers. The Northern Range herd, for example, which moves back and forth across the north region of Yellowstone National Park grew to as many as 19,000 elk. Hunting seasons were liberal and tags plentiful, but bad winters also resulted in thousands of dead elk before spring.
More recently, herds around Yellowstone have stabilized, said Doug McWhirter, Game and Fish’s Jackson wildlife coordinator. Herds like the Jackson herd have had between about 9,000 and 11,000 elk for over 15 years.
For the rest of the state, numbers have often kept climbing.
Biologists point to a handful of reasons why elk numbers have increased so much across most of the state and the West, particularly at a time when mule deer, bighorn sheep and, depending on the area, even pronghorn are struggling.
Most of the reasons are pretty basic. First, elk are opportunists. Unlike mule deer, which largely depend on new shrub growth and wildflowers, or bighorn sheep, which require large, open areas with mostly grass, elk will eat — and thrive on — a much wider array of options, Binfet said. They eat grass and alfalfa, shrubs like mountain mahogany or willows, aspens or wildflowers. That means while they may prefer grass, if snow is particularly deep or crusty, they can switch to something above the snow like a shrub or tree.
They’re big and have more fat stores than mule deer, or in particular, pronghorn. Their long legs can wade through snow easier than a pronghorn, and their fat stores help them go longer without food, if necessary.
Elk are also more willing to change course, to find new winter range, or to alter their migration route.
“If a mule deer shows up to a winter range and it’s not good, or there’s a subdivision, they stress about it and may die off. Elk go somewhere else,” Knox said. “We often see elk where we haven’t seen them before, and it’s because they didn’t like where they were and moved.”
Evolutionarily, that’s a pretty successful strategy.
Lastly, elk have benefited from increasingly large stretches of private land closed to most elk hunters. Where many large ranches used to allow fairly liberal access to hunters, land ownership is changing and much of that land is locked up, allowing either very limited hunting or none at all, Binfet said.
Then toss on top increased recreation in forests, and elk spend more time on private land away from hunters.
Even with some herds tucked away on private land, elk hunting hasn’t been this good in Wyoming in well over a century.
Hunters kill record numbers of elk out of many areas, and Game and Fish reports high numbers of people interested in filling their freezers with elk meat.
Some herds, like the one near Laramie Peak, has more elk than biologists would like. Hunters only about a 22% chance at successfully drawing a bull tag, though almost everyone looking for a cow tag can draw one. If wildlife managers allowed more hunters the quality of the bull hunt on public land would diminish, Binfet said.
So managers turn toward new extended seasons and more cow tags. Some areas of the state have special rifle hunts in August on private land, much earlier than the typical Oct. 1 or Oct. 15 rifle opener. Even more areas have late-season cow hunts sending hunters into the field as late as Jan. 31. Any earlier, or later, begins to put too much strain on elk herds, Binfet said.
“In some cases, after a 5.5-month long hunting season, it’s really an undue amount stress to continue to pressure those elk in their later stages of pregnancy,” Binfet said. “At some point, ethically, it’s time to let them be.”
Knox hopes this year hunters look for elk in and near where the Mullen Fire burned through about 175,000 acres in 2020. The burn was patchy, and regrowth beginning strong. Too many elk in the burn area can tamp down on aspen regrowth. The same applies for other areas around the state where prescribed burns or other habitat treatment are meant to regenerate aspens for elk and other wildlife.
As hunters across the state move through the myriad elk seasons, biologists agree the future for elk in the West is good.