Hunters with tags for elk, deer, and pronghorn in western states this fall can expect to find decent number of animals, with a few notable exceptions, and thanks to game-management practices, sportsmen have a decent chance at bringing home a trophy.
How do I know? I asked.
I don’t know the figures on how many hunters call state big-game experts before a hunt, but if there’s anyone who knows what’s going on in every game-management unit, it’s the boots-on-the-ground game biologists, managers, and specialists. They know numbers, and they have a good idea how many trophy-class animals are out there and where they’re most likely to be. Some spoke in specifics, some in generalizations, but they answered every question. And everyone had nuggets of advice.
“In general, overall population trends for elk, mule deer, Coues deer, and pronghorn are stable across the regions and the state,” said Andrew Jones, game program data manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
For elk, Jones said, Arizona Units 1, 9, 10, and 23 have hunt objectives designed to provide abundant older-age-class elk albeit a limited number of tags. “Areas that have higher permit levels are often under utilized and provide great opportunity to just come and hunt Arizona, for both bull and cow elk, without waiting for a significant amount of time to hunt some higher ‘publicized’ areas,” he said.
For mule deer, look at Arizona Units 12A, 12B, 13A, 13B, 3A, 3C, 17A, 45A, 45B, and 45C for older deer. “Mule deer hunting has increased in difficulty across the state and are similar to challenges known in other western states experiencing prolonged drought, competition from elk and whitetail deer, habitat loss and degradation,” said Jones.
However, quality hunts “beyond the well-known Kaibab Plateau and Arizona Strip can be found in game-management units around Prescott and geographically moving southeast toward Globe.”
Arizona is known for Coues deer, and that means Units 6A, 23, 30B, 31, and 36C and also the Region 5 area around Tucson. “Most of these units provide above-average densities of white-tailed deer and abundant tags,” said Jones. “Don’t let the fears of activity along the Mexico border limit the potential enjoyment of this hunt.”
Pronghorn are widespread throughout public and private lands. However, the bad news is that Arizona issues fewer than 750 permits annually. The good news is that if you get one the opportunity for a quality hunt is high.
“Generally, elk populations are rising and deer and pronghorn remain steady,” said Sara DiRienzo, public outreach specialist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “Going into this year, hunting is projected to be very good. Our primary focus for big-game management is on the health of the herd in both quantity and quality. Because we don’t have specific management plans for growing trophies, it would be subjective to recommend specific areas.”
She said studying drawing odds as outlined in the online Game and Fish Department Hunt Planner “would quickly tell the story of the most popular areas for pursuing game.”
Tip No. 1: Don’t overlook areas dominated by private land, advised DiRienzo. The Access Yes program “opens hunting space because of collaboration with private landowners and can unlock thousands of acres.”
Statewide, Wyoming is offering more elk, deer, and pronghorn licenses this year, but western Wyoming was hit by a tough winter that impacted fawn survival in some areas. As hunting season nears, recommended DiRienzo, hunters should study regional hunting forecasts on the Game and Fish website.
Another tip: “Nonresident hunters can benefit from preference points and learning how to utilize them in the most strategic ways,” said DiRienzo. A general elk license is still accessible, requiring about two points, and some deer and antelope areas can be drawn with zero or one point.
“Concerns I hear from hunters are how one can best apply the points they have accumulated — no one wants to waste them,” she said. “So study the odds, keep up on the trends. This is accessible on our website.”
Colorado doesn’t promote “trophy” hunting areas, said Travis Duncan, public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, but they do have “quality big-game hunting units, meaning two things: The quality of the animals is above average and/or quality units can have less hunting pressure, which can lead to a more enjoyable hunting experience.”
Duncan said Units 1, 2, 10, 201, in the northwest corner, and Unit 40, south and west of Grand Junction, have quality elk and reduced hunting pressure due to limited quota, but as a consequence, these units require a higher number of preference points. Bulls scoring 300+ are common, so this could be the hunt of your dreams.
Eleven Units (2, 201, 10, 66, 67, 44, 45, 444, 74, 75, and 751) have mule deer populations that are steady or growing. Buck-to-doe ratios are high, and in some units licenses have increased 20 percent from last season. Average bucks in Units 2 and 201 are in the 24- to 26-inch range.
Duncan said Colorado doesn’t manage for quality whitetail deer, but on the eastern plains, many mature bucks face little hunting pressure. Bear in mind, the eastern plains is primarily privately owned, and public land access can be hard to come by.
Northwest Colorado offers the best pronghorn opportunities. Duncan highlighted Units 1, 2, 66, 67, 201, and 301. There are opportunities in Colorado for pronghorn (and other species, for that matter) that require few or no preference points to obtain a license. It’s worth checking out over-the-counter license options, too.
“The thing about elk hunting in Utah is that we’ve got great bulls,” said Covy Jones, Division of Wildlife Resources big game coordinator. “We manage more for quality than any state in the U.S., as far as elk goes, but that comes at a cost, and the cost is it’s hard to get an elk tag in Utah.”
Drawing an elk tag in popular hunting units like San Juan, Beaver, and Boulder requires maximum preference points, currently 24. But don’t be discouraged. Jones said half the tags go to a random draw and half to maximum-point applicants, and other units, like Mount Dutton, have great potential, especially in late season. Fire swept through parts of central Utah, which encouraged forage growth, something to keep an eye on. “They’re going to be harvesting a lot of big bulls in the Wasatch and Manti units over the next 10 years,” said Jones.
Whitetail are only in isolated pockets. Mule deer, on the other hand, range throughout the state, but they had a rough year in some areas. “We had the driest year on record followed by the second wettest spring on record and a heavy snowpack,” he said. This deprived deer of nutrition, especially in the southeast and northern regions.
Still, traditional hotspots, like Oak Creek and Paunsaugunt units, have been hot the last few years. “Nothing compares to Pine Valley and Zion right now,” said Jones.
Pronghorn have done well statewide. Jones said southern and northeastern units were top places, but units like West Desert, Rush Valley, and other western units haven’t produced as well lately.
“For elk, our statewide population is stable to slightly increasing,” said Nicole Tatman, New Mexico Department of Game & Fish big game program manager, “but in one area, Unit 9, they are struggling.”
For traditional elk hotspots, Tatman indicated the southwestern part of the state, particularly the Gila region. She said Units 16 and 16A through 16E are managed for quality, meaning older-age-class bulls and fewer hunters, but don’t overlook Units 34 and 36 in the southeast. “They’re interesting in that the bull-to-cow ratio is super high,” she said. “When we fly our elk surveys in the fall, during rut, we see a crazy number of bulls.”
They don’t differentiate between mule deer and whitetails during surveys, and populations are stable. With good spring precipitation, she expects improved fawn survival. For mule deer, look at the northern border—and Unit 2 in particular. “Rio Arriba County produces the most Boone and Crockett bucks of any county in the U.S.,” said Tatman.
“It’s a migratory herd. They winter in New Mexico but summer in Colorado. There’s always huge 200-inch bucks.” Also, Units 32 and 33 in the southeastern sand country are “really interesting areas to hunt.”
According to Tatman, there are Coues deer in the bootheel of the state, in Units 23, 26, and 17. “Arizona is thought of as the place to hunt Coues deer, but we have great opportunities in southwest New Mexico, too.”
The northeastern portion of the state has the highest density of pronghorn, but the world record came out of Unit 16, in the southwestern part of the state. “Kind of removed from where the highest densities of pronghorn are,” she said.
Elk populations in Montana are doing well and have surpassed population objectives in some areas, according to John Vore, game management bureau chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Southwest-central and south-central Montana are the best elk areas, he said, and though elk densities are lower, the temperate rain forest habitats of northwest Montana offer security for some good elk, though they are few and far between. Overall, the best opportunity for trophy elk is in the Missouri Breaks districts, but Vore said those are limited-draw areas.
“Mule deer in the western part of the state are struggling, as they are in many western states,” he said. In the east, Montana muleys are doing well. Whitetails also are doing well in most of the state. The exception is in the northwest, where a couple harsh winters set back fawn survival. Pronghorn in southeast Montana are thriving, but some areas in the central and north-central regions have not recovered from disease and harsh winters of three to four years ago, Vore said.
Montana has a lot of U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land management, and state public lands, Vore noted. “It would behoove hunters to get good maps from agencies and carefully plan their hunt,” he said. The world-record Pope & Young bull elk came out of Powder River country in eastern Montana in 2016, on public land, he said. “A quick look at the record book shows that nice trophies are taken across the state,” he said.