When someone decides they want to go elk hunting, the steps involved in deciding where to go seem to be to the most baffling for many hunters. In Colorado, deciding between 6 different seasons, the mix of OTC, draw only tags, leftover tags and 100 different units is daunting enough to discourage many prospective hunters.
But it’s really not that hard. Not having gone through this process in your state doesn’t make it rocket science. The first thing you need to realize is that there are stats available to help you decide where to hunt. Finding them, even for veterans of western big game research, isn’t always easy. I’ve taken statistical research to a whole ‘nother level, but the basics that we all depended on for years is available to anyone with a computer and a basic atlas.
The stats page on the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s  website.
Almost everything you need to know is located on this page. The other thing you may want is a display of the GMUs, which is located on the DOW’s map page. I provided links to them in the last article, but once again, here’s the breakdown of Over The Counter rifle Bull elk units .
This can be as simple or as hard as you want to make it. You could just point to a large National Forest or Wilderness Area, and say, “I want to hunt there!” Then figure out which unit that is, whether or not they have Over the Counter tags in archery, 2nd or 3rd rifle season, or how many, if any preference points it takes to draw in muzzleloader, 1st or 4th season. Picking a unit by that method will not tell you if there are a lot of elk there, how productive the hunting is, what kind of trophy potential the elk might have, and whether or not there is a lot of pressure.
There are a lot of factors to cover here, so lets start with where the elk in Colorado are killed. Take a look at the harvest survey for 2009 (2010 harvest survey is normally published in late March). Units 4, 11, 211, 12, 13, 23, 62, and 70 all kill over 1,000 elk per year. By far the most elk in Colorado come out of unit 12. Units 12 and 23 are in the famed Flat Tops and White River National Forest.
Flat Tops Wilderness Area
Unit 4 is north of Craig in the Bear’s Ears Mountains and Routt National Forest. Units 11, 211, and 13 are in the foothills and canyons outside of the Flat Tops, there are no national forests here, just BLM and some state lands. Unit 62 is the northeast side of the Uncompahgre Plateau, most of which is National Forest, but also with some BLM lands at lower elevations in the canyons extending off of the Plateau. Unit 70 is down in the southwest, primarily a BLM unit, with a smattering of San Juan National Forest lands.
What do these units have in common? The one common factor here is access. There is very little federally designated wilderness, lots of roads, over the counter tags, not too vertical terrain, very little black timber and good elk populations. They also have a ton of pressure. Unit 62 is the most heavily hunted unit in the state, providing over 34,000 hunter recreation days last year. Hunting pressure can actually help move elk around. So if you’re sitting in a good vantage point or escape route, you can let others push the elk to you. Of course, you better be expecting a moving shot.
What else can we learn from the stats? There is a complete breakdown by season of the success rates, number of hunters, elk harvest and recreation days. Many people focus on success rates, but there are a lot of variables that affect success. I’m interested in a low pressure hunt, so I also take a look at hunter numbers and total recreation days.
Now lets identify some unproductive areas. The easiest way to do this is to just scan for single digit success rates. Immediately, units 7, 181, 19 and 51 should jump out at you. These aren’t just one year aberrations for these units either. They are consistently among the lowest success rate units in the state. 7 and 19 are part of the same Data Analysis Unit with 191 and 8 along the Cache La Poudre, and those units were just barely into double digit success rates last year. What do these areas have in common with 181 and 51? Too much dark timber and beetle killed timber, too close to major metropolitan areas (except 181), low elk populations and lots of private land that creates access issues and refuges.
Now lets find some overpressured, unproductive areas. This time lets take a look at the recreation days to see which units come close to those most productive units I first mentioned, but don’t have nearly the elk harvest. I’m looking for units that are approaching 20,000 recreation days, but with less than 500 elk being harvested. The first unit I come across, and one that is almost always among the bottom 10% in my rankings is unit 18. We have to stretch our parameters a little bit, but unit 28, which is right next door to 18, looks pretty poor too.
What’s wrong with these units? Mediocre elk populations, huge expanses of beetle-killed black timber (elk don’t have to feed in the meadows now that sunlight can reach the forest floor), large refuge areas (wilderness and roadless areas, private ranches and Rocky Mountain National Park) and these are some of the first OTC units that the Front Range hunters can reach.
I slice this data up on my website a lot further than this, but you can see that with just a few arbitrary parameters, you can identify some productive, unproductive and over hunted areas. Harvest stats are a little more useful in hunting unit research than population stats unless you know the size of each unit to put things into perspective. However, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that those productive Flat Tops units (11, 12, 13, 23, etc) have an elk density of around 10 per square mile, whereas the unproductive Poudre units (7, 8, 19, 191) only have about 2 elk per square mile.
If you’re perusing the harvest stats as your main research tool, don’t forget to use more than one years worth of research. You can also focus on individual seasons, say first rifle or muzzleloader. Or you can identify a few units, then peruse the stats to figure out which season is traditionally the best time to hunt that unit. I do an analysis using average deviation of success rates to determine which areas are heavily affected by weather (which is what I assume is a major cause in the differences in success rates each year) so I can avoid hunting a unit that either requires foul weather to produce or becomes unproductive with poor weather. Bu if you want to keep things simple, just set your parameters and stare at the reports until something pops out at you.