Elk are in serious trouble, at least if you believe everything you read. Yes, wolves have decimated some local elk herds. Places like Idaho's Lolo region, along with the Selway and Middle Fork regions, has seen a dramatic decline in elk.
The same thing is happening north of Yellowstone, where elk populations have fallen from 19,000 in 1995 to fewer than 4,000 in 2013. The blame falls squarely on wolves, although habitat loss and the overharvest of cows in some regions have contributed to the decline.
"Fewer people are hunting the areas with wolves, but success rates are about the same as they've always been in those areas," says Idaho Fish and Game spokesman Toby Boudreau. "Our elk population is actually doing very well. We have about 107,000 elk, and in some areas, the bull-to-cow ratio is 40 to 100."
Populations are also booming in places like Colorado, which has 280,000 elk, the largest herd in the country. Tags are available over the counter in much of the state, and public land is generously scattered throughout the best elk habitat. Some management areas (1, 2, 10, and 201) are set aside as limited-entry units and offer world-class hunting on public land. Plan on waiting more than 20 years for some of those units, though.
Utah also offers superb trophy potential, particularly in the La Sal and Pahvant regions. Arizona's units 8, 9, and 10 have some monster bulls, but you'll have to wait 10 years or more if you are a non-resident.
If you can't wait that long, apply for a tag in another, less popular unit or look to a state like Wyoming, which saw its second-highest harvest on record in 2013. The previous year had the highest on record.
Tags are available through a lottery and preference point system. In most instances, non-resident hunters can draw a tag to a good area after just a year or two.
On a positive note, elk are thriving in places they haven't lived in nearly a century. Kentucky has upwards of 10,000 elk and offered 1,000 permits last season. Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Michigan also offer limited elk hunts, and Virginia is the latest state to reintroduce the animals to their historic range.
For numbers and opportunity, look no further than Colorado, which has the most elk of any state and is loaded with public land. Even better, many units are huntable with an over-the-counter tag.
Montana offers some of the best hunting in the country. Non-resident draw odds are good, too. The lower Clark Fork area has good numbers and decent access. Central Montana also has lots of elk,
although access can be difficult.
Arizona's units 9 and 10 produce a number of giant bulls, but they are also difficult places to draw a tag. Casey Brooks arrowed what could be the No. 2 all-time Pope & Young non-typical elk on Arizona's San Carlos Reservation last September. It grossed 448 6/8 inches.