A not-so concise look at the opportunities available to those who have decided to come out West for an elk, deer or antelope hunt and don't know where to start. This won't address bighorn sheep, mountain goats, or moose as those are typically once-in-a-lifetime hunts. This is also designed for DIY hunters, not for those looking for private land or outfitted hunts, as there are various other aspects regarding transferable tags that could also be addressed. To the best of my knowledge this information is up to date and accurate. Let's take a look at each state, one at a time, the tag procurement processes, license fees, competitive advantages and disadvantages compared to other states, and various things that make each state unique.
First a few definitions regarding the major public lands that may not be familiar to those who do not live in the West:
USFS: The United States Forest Service, these are the lands where most hunters hunt. They are typically higher elevation lands open to most recreation with a few limitations. There are also National Grasslands that are run by the USFS, and hunting is permitted here as well. There may be, and in fact frequently are, private inholdings within the administrative boundaries of these lands where you cannot hunt. Make sure you have a good map that shows the actual land ownership, not just the administrative boundary.
BLM: The Bureau of Land Management. These are federally owned public lands, but they are not indicated on your typical road atlas. BLM lands are notorious for not being marked or being marked as private lands when they are in fact public. Once again, you need a good map.
Wilderness: This does not mean woods or forest. Federally designated wilderness areas can occur on either USFS or BLM lands. Wilderness areas on BLM lands are referred to as Wilderness Study Areas or WSAs and are treated the same as a USFS Wilderness Area. The important thing to know about Wilderness Areas is that there is no motorized access permitted. If you are looking for a horseback hunt, backpack hunt or want to just ensure there are no ATVs, these are the areas to focus on. Also, there is no wheeled vehicles of any sort allowed, which includes mountain bikes and game carts. Another important note is that the state of Wyoming does not permit nonresidents to hunt big game in wilderness areas without a guide.
State Trust Lands: Throughout most of the west, section 16 and 36 in each township is designated as a State Trust Land, also called School Lands. These lands are not always publicly accessible and vary from state to state. In many states, they are treated as private lands, controlled by those who own the grazing lease on these lands.
One other issue regarding public access: You cannot cross private land to access public land. If there is no public road access to a block of land, you may as well consider it private ground. You are trespassing if crossing private lands. Also, in areas where checkerboard landownership patterns exist, it is generally illegal to cross from one corner of land to the next because the law assumes you must have been trespassing, even if briefly in order to hop from one piece of land to the next.
Arizona has a national reputation for trophy deer and elk hunting, but they also have spectacular trophy antelope hunting despite not having the antelope numbers of places like Wyoming and Montana. Arizona, along with New Mexico and Texas are the only opportunities for Coues deer in the US. While the image most folks have of Arizona being a desert is mostly true, a strip of mountains running northwest to southeast holds most of the elk habitat and National Forest lands. There are large holdings of BLM land in the rugged western and northern deserts, and probably more state land than any other western state (13% of the state). Indian Reservations make up a large percentage of the lands in eastern Arizona. There is a small wolf population in the Blue Range.
Kaibab National Forest, Arizona - photo by Erik Richman
Due to the requirement of purchasing a $150 hunting license before the drawing, Arizona has surprisingly good draw odds for a state whose trophy opportunities are so well published. The elk and antelope applications are due February 9th, 2010. Deer applications are normally due in June. You are required to pay the full fee of the $150 hunting license plus whichever species you are attempting to draw; $595 for elk, $485 for antelope and $232 for deer. Arizona does not have a preference system, but rather a bonus system to increase the odds for repeat applicants. The draw is different than most other states, utilizing what they call the 3 passes. The first is the bonus point pass, where up to 20% of the permits are issued, where those with bonus points through repeat applications, hunter education or group applicants have additional chances to be drawn. The remaining permits are allocated in the 2nd pass by attempting to randomly fill applicants' 1st and 2nd choices. The 3rd pass does the same thing with 3rd, 4th and 5th choices. For hunters who feel "stuck" with a $150 license they aren't likely to use if unsuccessful in the drawing, Arizona has some very diverse upland game bird opportunities that cannot be found in the East, including chukar, blue grouse, Gambel's quail, California quail, Mearn's quail, and scaled quail.
Elk seasons vary quite a lot, but nearly every unit has a rifle season from November 26th to December 2nd. There are also rifle seasons during the rut, and a wide variety of archery seasons. Antelope seasons are almost all from September 3-12. Deer seasons rarely overlap with elk seasons, and most of the rifle deer seasons occur for 10 days in late October through early November.
Scopes, sabots and inlines are legal for muzzleloader hunting in Arizona.
State lands can be hunted. A valid hunting license grants you access to those lands. They are frequently posted, "No Trespassing without valid permit" or something similar.
Hardly on the radar of most travelling hunters, California has more opportunities than some might realize. While sometimes considered California's most popular game animal, there is a lot more to the state than wild hog hunting. The huge state offers a wide variety of blacktailed and mule deer hunting opportunities, including several subspecies of mule deer not found anywhere else in the West. California is also the only state in the West to have three sub species of elk to hunt, and there are also limited opportunities for antelope. And don't forget the stellar black bear hunting. Northern California is mostly heavily timbered, low elevation mountains, with large tracts of Forest Service and some commercial timber lands, but also home to the largest Columbian Blacktails. The Central Coast is also semi-mountainous terrain, but much drier than the North, with shrublands and smaller trees dominating the landscape. There are very few big game opportunities in the Central Valley, which is almost entirely private. The Sierra Nevadas make up much of Eastern California, and extend to over 14,000 feet, with Mt. Whitney being the tallest peak in the lower 48. Southern California isn't just the LA Basin; it is surrounded by a mountain range, with some peaks that extend over 10,000 feet. East of those mountains is the Mojave Desert, a rugged desert, owned primarily by the BLM.
Applications for all big game species are due in early June. There is a preference system, with 90% of the tags going to those with the most points, and 10% going to a random draw for the so-called Premium Deer Tags. The Premium Deer Tags are primarily in the Sierra Nevadas and Cascades for mule deer. The elk tags are a long shot at best for a nonresident and ridiculously priced like Nevada. Those tags not considered premium are available first-come, first served. A $141 hunting license is required before applying, and the full $242 deer license fee is required up front. Elk, antelope and sheep tags do not require the full fee up front, just a $7.50 application fee. Elk tags, if drawn are $1,062 and only one is available to nonresidents per year.
Shasta-Trinity National Forest in California - photo by Marie Richman
One interesting thing about California is that you can buy two buck tags. The second cannot be a Premium tag, but the opportunity is available if you want to spread out that $141 hunting license fee. Another interesting opportunity for the hunter who is bored out of his mind in midsummer is that California offers an August rifle deer season along the Coast Range. Most of the other seasons are in September and October, although a few extend into November. Another nice aspect to California's deer seasons is that they are often over 1 month long, except the Premium mule deer units, none of which are less than two weeks. And if you're really looking for something different, you can bow hunt in July along the Coast. The muzzleloader opportunities are special hunts and relegated to just a few places.
Outside of the National Forest and BLM, there are very few opportunities (but there is a lot of BLM and National Forest land). A handful of state wildlife areas offer big game hunting, and private land access is rare.
This is the state most people think of first when they think about Western hunting. Colorado has the largest elk population and with a diverse selection of management philosophies, there is something for everyone regarding elk. The mule deer hunting opportunities are more limited, and all deer tags are controlled, but even without applying there are numerous units with leftover tags each year. While antelope are present here, this is not a great state to hunt them for a nonresident. The tags are very difficult to draw, and the populations are nothing compared to Wyoming.
Part of what makes Colorado so popular is the availability of unlimited over-the-counter elk tags for over half of western Colorado (that's where most of the elk are, the eastern 1/3 is prairie. In general the far western 1/3 is rugged desert, mesa and canyon lands, the central 1/3 is the mountainous area most people envision). Archery tags, 2nd rifle season and 3rd rifle season are the only seasons with unlimited tags. 1st and 4th rifle season are draw only, but there are sometimes high quality tags available as leftovers. The units that are not unlimited are managed with one of two management philosophies: crowd controlled, or quality managed. The crowd controlled units are mostly near the main urban centers of the Front Range, and are limited to prevent overcrowding. By reducing the crowding, those units also tend to have decent trophy potential, but without the steep price in preference points of the trophy units: 2, 10, 201, 40, 61 and 76.
Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness Area, White River National Forest, Colorado
Presently, nonresident elk tags are $550 for bulls and $350 for cows. There is no separate hunting license needed. Colorado has 6 seasons in most units, plus special late and early rifle seasons in a few units, but those tend to be for cows only. Deer tags $326 and are draw only, but there are often leftover tags. If planning a combo hunt, it is most convenient to try to draw a deer tag in an OTC elk unit during 2nd or 3rd season so you don't have to plan on drawing both tags.
Colorado's draw process is by a pure preference system: those with the most points get the tags. Don't worry, most hunts don't require any preference points to draw. The application deadline is April 6, 2010. You may apply as a party, and there is no limit to group size. The best units will likely fill with the first choice, but look at the drawing summaries to find units whose tags are still available during 2nd and 3rd choice so you don't waste your draws if you are trying to get a limited tag. If you don't fill your first choice, you will be granted a preference point for next year's drawing. If you still want a tag, other than one in the main drawing, the next step is the leftover draw. Do not forget to check the box that asks if you wish to be eligible for the leftover drawing. After the drawing, a list of units with leftover tags will be available first to those in the leftover draw in June. If there are still tags leftover, and there always will be, there is a first-come, first-served basis for distributing them in August. If you miss out on all these, or would prefer to be secure in the knowledge that the tag you want is going to be available to you, there is always the OTC archery, 2nd and 3rd rifle season tags for elk. Deer seasons are primarily during 2nd and 3rd season, there is no 1st rifle deer season, and there are very few 4th season tags (mule deer rut). One other intriguing tag for hardcore hunters is the early rifle deer tags. Those tags restrict hunters to a wilderness area in early September and usually require more than 1 preference point.
You may have two Colorado elk and deer tags each, but at least one of each of those species must be List B. List B tags are listed in the regs booklet and are always female tags, but not all female tags in all units qualify as List B, typically only those with population problems. So you may have either two female tags or one male and one female tag for both elk and deer.
2010 archery season is August 28-Sept 26. The first weekends are very popular due to Labor Day, but not a good choice as the elk rut doesn't hit high gear until much later in the season. The last two weekends are usually the best, but the elk have already been pressured for several weeks. These tags are available over the counter in unlimited numbers for much of the state, but there are some draw only areas that are worth the effort.
Muzzleloader elk season is Sept 11-19, and the peak of the rut usually falls during this time. All muzzleloader tags are limited, and draw only. Colorado does not allow scopes or sabots during muzzleloader season.
1st rifle season is limited to draw only, but there are some tags, especially for cows that make it to leftovers 1st season is usually the highest success rate and will be Oct 16-20 in 2010. 2nd season offers unlimited bull tags throughout much of Colorado is the most popular season to hunt. It is also the first available deer season, and will be Oct 23-31 2010. This is the lowest success deer season and 3rd highest success elk season, but it's popularity was partly due to the fact that it was traditionally the only season with two weekends. 3rd season is Nov 6-14, and for the first time will now span two weekends. This is traditionally the lowest success elk season, and one of the best deer seasons. 3rd season bull elk tags are available OTC for many areas. 4th season is only 5 days, like 1st season and is Nov 17-21 in 2010. Where available, these are typically the best deer tags, but require many preference points in most units. This is typically the second best elk season, and a great season for a low pressure hunt.
Colorado's late seasons are for cows only and vary from Thanksgiving weekend to the middle of January. These can be tricky hunts as they attempt to span a migration period and are not recommended for anyone who doesn't have local knowledge and access because the elk will be on lower elevation lands that are often private.
Colorado has both Forest Service and BLM lands in abundance in Western Colorado. There are also a handful of state wildlife areas to hunt on. Not all state school trust lands can be hunted. There is a booklet produced by the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the State Land Board that indicates where publicly accessible state lands are located. State lands not designated as such should be treated as private lands. Private land in Colorado, and most of the West does not have to be posted.
I believe this to be one of the unsung states for western hunting. Colorado, followed by Montana and Wyoming may be the most popular places to hunt, but Idaho is one of the better options for elk and deer due to their over-the-counter tags and abundant public lands. The statewide deer tags are capped and may be used in much of the state. Several of the elk hunting units are also capped for nonresidents, but are available first come first served and worth considering. A large swath of Southern Idaho is desert or prairie, but the eastern and southeastern edges also have significant Forest Service lands. Northern Idaho is primarily dense forest, with National Forest and commercial timber lands. This is excellent whitetail country. East and Central Idaho is the large rugged, sparsely populated area most people focus on for deer and elk hunting. In recent years, wolves have reduced the game populations, but there is still good hunting to be had. For anyone looking for a wilderness adventure, central Idaho, in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, is the place to go. Unlike most wilderness areas, there are many air strips throughout the 2.3 million acre wilderness, so for about $450 round trip you can penetrate the wildest country in the lower 48. Southern and western Idaho offer antelope hunting, but it tends to be better in Oregon, Wyoming or Montana. There are a few places where you can have a combination deer and antelope hunt if interested.
Baker Creek, Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho
Idaho does require hunters to purchase a $154 hunting license prior to the price of a $416 elk and/or $301 deer permit. This puts their elk license price on par with most states, but the deer permit is far more expensive than nearly any other state if the hunting license price is not spread out between both elk and deer. There are both general and controlled deer and elk tags, but the vast majority are first-come first serve general tags. The general deer tag is essentially statewide, not including the controlled hunts, the elk tags are broken up regionally, with some of the higher demand areas having nonresident caps. The controlled hunt application deadline is in early June, with draw results in July. Idaho does not have a preference system, so the drawing is completely random, giving everyone at least some chance of drawing a tag. Due to the requirement to first purchase a $150 hunting license, the draw odds are quite good. The general elk tag is offered in two types, A or B. The B tag is primarily for rifle hunters, the A tag is primarily for archers, but each unit has a different set of rules for each tag regarding sex, antler restrictions, weapon restrictions and season dates. The archery seasons generally fall in mid September, lasting 3-4 weeks, the rifle seasons are typically two weeks in mid October (2010 regs are not yet published). The notable exceptions to these are the Middle Fork and Selway B tag which allows rifle hunting during the September elk rut. Deer seasons vary also, but are generally more than 3 weeks long and are often concurrent with the elk seasons.
A muzzleloader season for elk is usually offered after the general rifle season with some A tags and some B tags. Scopes, sabots, 209 primers and pelletized powders are prohibited.
In addition to the elk and deer hunts, Idaho does offer extremely inexpensive black bear hunting and is worth a look, as the tags are just $31.75 for a nonresident in some units. Also, in select areas, the deer tag may be used to take a black bear. Idaho has over 400,000 acres of accessible private lands managed under the Access Yes! Program.
Montana is a great state for nonresident hunters. Eastern Montana is primarily rolling prairie, with scattered areas of rugged badlands or breaks and sparse timber, with abundant BLM lands in some areas, and scattered checkerboards of public lands in other areas. Western Montana has large Forest Service holdings, some large, rugged wilderness areas, with the Bob Marshall, Absaroka-Beartooth and Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness areas being the largest and most famous. Northwest Montana is great whitetail country, but mediocre at best elk country. West-Central and Southwest Montana should be the primary focus for elk hunters. Deer hunting can be had throughout the state, with the river valleys and Northwest forests being dominated by whitetails, and the prairies, badlands and southern mountains by mule deer. Most antelope hunting is done Eastern Montana, but there is some decent antelope hunting to be had in the valleys of the Southwest.
Gallatin National Forest, Montana
Like Western Idaho and Northern Wyoming, Southwest and West-Central Montana is now home to wolves. The game populations have declined, but there are still plenty of elk, with excellent hunting to be had. And you can always add a wolf tag for an interesting trophy.
Montana has a different system for acquiring tags than most other states. First, you must acquire a general deer or elk tag through the drawing. Then once that tag is acquired, you may put in for a limited permit. There is a bonus system, not a preference system, and those without bonus points can usually draw the combination elk/deer ($643,) elk ($593) or deer ($343) about 50% of the time. There are also guaranteed outfitter sponsored tags for an additional cost. The application deadline is March 15, 2010 for the general tag, and June 1st for limited tags (if you've drawn the elk or deer general) and antelope tags.
One of the great things about Montana's general tags is that they offer great flexibility and long seasons. With a general elk or deer tag, one may hunt from the early September through late November. Archery season is early September through mid October, rifle season is mid October through late November. The same permit is good for both archery and rifle season. There is no muzzleloader season. Another wonderful opportunity for the hardcore hunter are Montana's Backcountry seasons, which usually open September 15th, only requiring a general tag. This allows you to take advantage of high country mule deer and rutting bull elk, but accessing these units is extremely physically demanding.
To hunt on Montana's School Trust lands, one must purchase a $10 permit. Montana also has what is called the Block Management Program, which allows hunters access to private lands. Sometimes, access is completely unregulated, just requiring that you sign in and out, other places it works off a reservation system. This is great system, especially in the East, where public lands are somewhat limited.
New Mexico is considered a top trophy state for elk and mule deer, but they also have good Coues whitetail antelope hunting. Eastern New Mexico is mostly shortgrass prairie and scrublands, and private ranchlands, but there are some small National Grasslands and larger state lands, plus large blocks of BLM in the Southeast. Large portions of New Mexico are owned by either Indian Reservations or the US Military, especially in the Northeast and South-Central portions of the state. The two largest Forest Service holdings are mostly in the Southwest and North Central portions of the state. New Mexico does have a small wolf population in the Gila National Forest and they are currently federally protected. One other interesting hunting opportunity in New Mexico, not found in other places is the chance to hunt oryx.
New Mexico's Gila National Forest
For 2010, New Mexico has altered their draw process by requiring the full fee up front from applicants. By only charging a$12 application fee and no preference system, New Mexico had terrible draw odds, but everyone had at least a slim chance of drawing a trophy tag. With the new change, there will likely be fewer applicants, but since there is no preference system, a first time applicant has as good a chance as anyone else of drawing a tag. New Mexico has standard priced tags, and high priced tags for their quality and high demand units. Standard deer licenses are $297, and quality/high demand tags are $382. Standard elk licenses are $562 for bull, $352 for cows, and $787 for quality/high demand.
Seasons vary by unit for elk and deer, and are typically just 5 days. Like Colorado, New Mexico offers a series of short seasons to reduce hunting pressure during any one season. Most rifle deer seasons take place in late October through mid November, most rifle elk seasons occur in early to mid October. There is generally no overlap in the elk and deer seasons. New Mexico has both late and early archery deer seasons, and the archery elk seasons are mostly during the mid-late September rut. Muzzleloader elk seasons are mostly after archery and before the rifle season, allowing hunters to catch the tail end of the rut. The highest demand hunts are usually the first rifle hunt offered for each species. If you are willing to accept a slightly lower success rate on animals that have already been hunted, you can typically increase your draw odds.
New Mexico has both primitive and modern muzzleloader seasons for deer, and modern muzzleloader hunts for elk. The modern muzzleloader hunts allow scopes and sabots. Restricted muzzleloader deer hunts require open sights, and prohibit in line ignition, pelleted powder, sabots, and belted bullets.
Hunting on state trust land is permitted. New Mexico also has a private land access program called Open Gate.
Nevada is rarely thought of as a big game state, but it offers tremendous mule deer hunting and some limited elk hunting opportunities. There is no shortage of public land in Nevada and access is excellent except for the I-80 BLM checkerboard where every other square mile is private land. Believe it or not, there are mountains ranges and high elevation National Forest Lands. Most of Nevada's largest mountain ranges are in the middle of the state. One other unusual opportunity in Nevada is the Himalayan Snow Cock, an introduced upland game bird, much larger than a grouse in the Ruby Mountains.
Spring Mountains, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Nevada
Nevada requires hunters to purchase a $140 hunting license before applying. But you are not required to pay for your tags up front, just an application fee, so it makes some sense to apply for nearly everything, including antelope, bighorn sheep, elk, and mountain goats. Nevada operates on a bonus point system, so you have a chance at drawing a tag without waiting for several years of points to accumulate. If you are only interested in deer hunting, you may opt out of paying for the hunting license, but you lose the chance to earn a bonus point for future draws. This makes the Nevada mule deer draw one of the least expensive opportunities in western hunting. Applications are due in early April, deer tags are $240, antelope $300, bighorn sheep, mountain goat or bull elk $1,200, cow elk $500 and are charged to you after you draw.
Deer seasons vary, but most take place throughout most of the month of October. Some of the more popular units have both a late and early season. The popularity of those seasons varies somewhat by terrain. Those with accessible high country tend to have popular early seasons, while those units with difficult to access high country have stiffer draw odds for the late seasons. Muzzleloader seasons occur in mid September, for the most part, archery season throughout most of August and early September, although late archery hunts also exist. There are only a handful of elk units, and most have a rifle season lasting two weeks between early and mid November. Deer and elk seasons rarely overlap. Muzzleloader elk season is late October through early November, archery is from mid August through early September. There are no hunts during the peak of the elk rut.
Sabots, inlines and centerfire primers are permitted during muzzleloader seasons, but scopes and pelletized powder are prohibited.
Nevada has very little state owned land to hunt, but with the amount of Forest Service and BLM land available, accessing public lands is not an issue.
Oregon is an incredibly diverse state, with temperate rain forests in the West to high deserts in the East. That diversity creates an enormous number of hunting opportunities; from Columbian Blacktails, Mule Deer, Whitetails (including the endangered Columbian Whitetail, which you can hunt because it is overpopulated in some areas, imagine that?), Roosevelt(the largest bodied sub species) and Rocky Mountain elk, antelope, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats, and an incredible array of upland bird species. This is not a state on the list of most Eastern hunters, but it really should be. While not known as a trophy state, there are some well-managed opportunities for both elk and deer. The amount of public land is simply staggering, with large amounts of BLM in the eastern basins, National and State Forests throughout the mountainous western and central regions, and another impressive, isolated series of mountains in the Northeast. Combine those opportunities with the commercial timber lands and you have no shortage of hunting land.
Deschutes National Forest, Oregon - photo by Marie Richman
Oregon has both unlimited general and controlled tags for deer and elk, and all antelope tags are controlled. The controlled hunt application deadline is May 15. The fees were greatly increased for 2010, and you are required to purchase a $140 hunting license, but are not required to pay for a permit up-front. So if you don't draw the controlled tag, you are still stuck with the license, at which point you really should consider purchasing the general tag or at least checking out the interesting bird hunting opportunities. If you draw the permit, you may decide at that time whether or not to accept it. Oregon's preference point system allots 75% of the tags to those with the most preference points, and 25 % in a random drawing. Combined with the high up front $140 license fee, your draw odds are very good. Elk permits are $500 and deer are $375, antelope $333.
Oregon's general deer seasons vary by location, but the Cascade region has a split season from October 2-15, the breaks from October 16-22 for the Cascade bull elk season, resuming from October 23-November 5, 2010. The Coast buck season is unbroken and goes from October 2-November 5. The Rocky Mountain elk seasons are split, the first being a 5 day season in late October, the 2nd being a 9 day season in Mid November. The Coast bull elk season is also split from November 13-16, then November 20-26. Deer and elk archery seasons are from late August to late September. One of the more interesting exceptions to all these seasons, and a great adventure opportunity is the High Cascade buck hunt, occurring in mid September, and it never draws out with the 1st choice applicants. It is a wilderness hunt, great for backpackers and horsemen. Antelope hunts are typically in August, but there are exceptions. Muzzleloader hunts are offered but the seasons vary.
Scopes, sabots, jacketed bullets, centerfire primers, pelletized powder, and in line ignition systems are prohibited on muzzleloader hunts.
Oregon has a private land access program, state wildlife areas and many state trust lands that are open to hunting.
Utah is on most trophy hunter's radar, and is well known for their trophy bull elk hunting and trophy mule deer hunting. They also offer antelope hunting in the eastern and western deserts, but Montana and Wyoming are much more popular for that species. The state is bisected by a mountain range, approximately 1/4 the width of the state. Eastern Utah has flat, arid deserts, deep canyons, and high mesas. Western Utah is primarily desert with smaller, isolated mountain ranges. Like Colorado, the state's population centers are all along an interstate corridor. In Utah's case most live just west of the mountains, in the cities and suburbs between Provo, Salt Lake City and Ogden in North Central Utah, where hunting pressure can be intense. Nearly 2/3 of Utah is public land, with over half of that land open to hunting.
Southern Utah - photo by Erik Richman
One convenient aspect of Utah's drawing system is that you do not have to pay for the elk or deer license fees up front. You are, however required to purchase a $65 hunting license, which is nonrefundable. The low up-front costs and trophy reputation make drawing a high quality tag difficult in some parts of Utah. Now for the confusing part, Utah offers general tags, limited tags and what they call premium tags. You are only allowed to apply for either elk or deer, not both, with one exception, the Northern Region Bull/Bull combo. The deer and elk seasons do not overlap, except for with that combo license. The combo license is $651, general elk is $388, general deer is $263. Limited entry elk is $795, premium limited entry elk, which allows you to hunt rifle, archery or muzzleloader season is $1,500. Limited entry deer is $463, and the two premium limited entry deer units are $563. Applications are due by March 1st.
Utah's general deer tags have a quota, but they allow you to hunt several units, and are restricted to one of 5 regions in the state. Utah's general elk tags also have a quota, and allow you to hunt even in the premium units, but are restricted to spike bulls only in those units. You do need to apply for these tags, but there are often leftover Northern Region deer tags. An archery deer tag allows you to hunt any region in the state, but not in the limited units. Deer seasons run from Aug21-Sep 17 for archery, Sept 29 to Oct 7 for muzzleloaders, and Oct 23-27 for rifles. Elk archery is roughly the same as deer, rifle season is Oct 9-21, muzzleloader is after the rut in Utah; Nov 3-11. The special northern region combination license runs Oct 9-21, the same as the general elk season.
Utah does have a fledgling walk-in access program on private lands, but at this time is only 70,000 acres. Unlike most National Monuments, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is open to hunting. Utah has over 100 state owned Wildlife Management Areas open to hunting. Hunting is permitted on Utah's State Trust Lands with some minor exceptions based on land usage.
Muzzleloaders are permitted to have a scope with up to 1x magnification, sabots and pelletized powder are permitted, but not bonded as 1 piece.
Washington is a state managed for maximizing hunter opportunities and has few real trophy hunts. What they do offer that is of interest to the nonresident hunter are plentiful tags, public land and a variety of species. Whitetail deer, mule deer, black tail deer, Roosevelt elk, Rocky Mountain elk, moose, mountain goats and bighorn sheep are all available. Most of Central Washington is mountainous, with plenty of Forest Service land. Western Washington is known for temperate rain forests and commercial timber lands. Much of Eastern Washington is private ranch and farm land, with exceptions to the mountainous northeast and a small pocket of mountains in the southeast. Unlike most western states, the BLM has a fairly limited amount of land. While 400,000 acres may seem like a lot, the BLM owns 15 million acres in Oregon.
Olympic National Forest, Washington - photo by Marie Richman
Washington forces a hunter to commit to hunting in Washington when applying for a permit. You must purchase a general elk or deer tag before you can apply for a special limited tag. So why would you hunt here? Well for one thing, they offer a guaranteed elk and deer combo tag for $616, which makes Washington the least expensive state to hunt. The deer and elk permits are $396, so an elk hunt here is among the cheapest options, but the deer hunt is among the most expensive. Another interesting option is the High Buck Hunt, which is a general tag, allowing you to rifle hunt high elevation wilderness areas in mid September. The special permit applications are due in late May.
The typical buck deer seasons are two weeks from mid October through late October. Elk and deer seasons do not overlap (which would be a downfall to that combo tag), but a late Western Washington deer season opens after the 2.5 week mid November elk season. Archery seasons do overlap throughout most of the month of September and there are two days of overlap (or there were in 2009) for the muzzleloader seasons, which are in late September through early October for deer, and early October for elk.
Sabots are allowed, but inlines and scopes are generally not permitted.
Washington does have some very large state land holdings that are open to hunting, some of which exceed 50,000 acres and are worth investigating.
Wyoming is not an easy state to get started in for elk hunting, but the deer and antelope tags are readily available to first time nonresident hunters. Wyoming has very limited opportunities for archery elk hunters and forbids nonresidents from hunting big game in wilderness areas without a guide. The elk hunting is excellent, but if you are looking for a DIY, wilderness backpack hunt, this is not the state for you. Eastern Wyoming is primarily shortgrass prairie with scattered BLM holdings. Northeast Wyoming has some National Forest and National Grasslands also. Southwest and Central Wyoming are is cold desert, prairie, badlands and minor mountains with large BLM holdings, including the infamous Red Desert Checkerboard along 1-80, where literally every other square mile of land is BLM, which runs east-west for 200 miles and north-south for 50 miles. Northwest Wyoming, North Central Wyoming and South Central Wyoming have large Forest Service holdings. Most of the designated Wilderness areas are in the northwest, near Yellowstone National Park, so be careful when selecting a unit to stay out of those areas if you don't plan to hire a guide. The wolves are mostly in Northwest Wyoming and there currently is no open season on them.
Lamar River, Absaroka Range, Northwest Wyoming - photo by Marie Richman
Wyoming has both general and limited elk tags for nonresidents, but the general tag is capped and only available through a drawing, with a deadline traditionally on January 31st. Wyoming has a confusing draw process, so bear with me as I try to explain it: Of the nonresident tag allocation, 60% are regular price, 40% are "special" price. The special price is nearly double the regular price to increase the drawing odds for those willing to pay the price. Now, within both the regular price tag and special price tag allocations, 75% of the tags go to the preference point drawing, where those with the most points, get the permit. 25% of both the regular and special price tags are available in a random draw, ensuring there is always at least some chance of drawing a highly coveted permit. Even the Wyoming general elk tag requires a preference point to draw, unless you pay the special price, in which case it should be guaranteed. There are only a little over 20 units that have a specific, limited archery season.
Tag prices are as follows: $591 regular priced elk, $302 for cows and calves, $1,071 special elk, $326 deer, $566 special deer, $286 antelope, $526 special antelope, $48 for doe/fawn deer and antelope. The deer and antelope drawing deadline is March 15, 2010. Antelope tags are all allocated to specific units. General deer tags are broken up into regions, allowing a nonresident to hunt one of several units within each region. Many of the best units in a region are limited quota, and cannot be hunted with a general tag, so be careful when applying. If you want to hunt the limited quota unit, apply for it, but the odds are generally much stiffer than the general regional tag. Also, the many of the general deer tags are undersubscribed and are available as leftovers.
Seasons vary from unit to unit, but most antelope rifle seasons are open from late September to late October, rifle elk seasons are usually two weeks to a month long in beginning anywhere from early October to mid November, deer seasons are also two weeks to a month and have at least part of the season concurrent with elk seasons. A notable exception to the generalities above is that there are some September rifle bull elk seasons in Northwest Wyoming. While these allow you to hunt the rut, most are in wilderness areas, requiring a guide. For the most part, there are no muzzleloader seasons, except for a few antelope units.
Nearly all of Wyoming's state trust lands are open to hunting if they can be accessed by public road. Wyoming also has several access programs for the public to hunt on private lands. Some are called Walk-in areas, some are Hunter Management Areas. No matter what they are called, or how they are run, these areas are often your best bet to get access to good hunting grounds, especially in the East, where large blocks of public land are rare.
OTHER OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE TRAVELLING HUNTER
The states immediately east of those mentioned above all offer at least some mule deer hunting opportunities to nonresidents on public land. North Dakota has mule deer hunting and public land in the Little Missouri Grasslands. South Dakota has the Black Hill National Forest, Custer National Forest, Buffalo Gap National Grasslands and Grand River National Grasslands with mule deer, although whitetails make up a high percentage of the deer in those places. Nebraska's Pine Ridge is one of the few places in the state with significant public land and mule deer. The Nebraska National Forest and Oglala National Grasslands are the largest public holdings in the state.
Ponderosa WMA, Northwest Nebraska - photo by Marie Richman
Mule deer hunting in Kansas is mostly restricted to small, isolated state properties with the exception of the Cimarron National Grassland. Oklahoma's mule deer hunting is mostly by draw only on state wildlife areas and the ODFW runs drawings to hunt on federal properties like the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge. Texas has a little bit of federal land that can be hunted for mule deer, but the best places are available by drawing on large state properties in the Big Bend region.
And then there's Alaska! But since the primary focus of this piece was on "Western" species like mule deer, blacktails, elk and antelope, I'll just focus on those species in Alaska. For starters, there are no antelope, but there are Roosevelt elk and Sitka Blacktails on several of the larger islands. On some islands, the elk permits are by draw only, others are available without a draw. Deer bag limits vary by island, or group of islands, but some allow up to four bucks to be harvested. Some of the island chains have moose which you could hunt in conjunction with deer or elk, but most do not, so you'll have to stick to bears if you want a combination hunt.
And while we're on the topic of moose, three more states, which most certainly are not Western states should be mentioned. Since drawing a moose tag is so difficult in the West, one should consider drawing in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. The draws are inexpensive, as you aren't required to pay for the permit up front, and you can have multiple applications to increase your draw odds.
Mark Richman is a former wildlife biologist specializing in big game population dynamics and habitat enhancements. He now owns WesternHuntingData.com , a website dedicated to the Do-It-Yourself hunter looking for a better way to select a hunting area with exclusive statistics not published by the state wildlife agencies. One of his life long goals is to harvest a deer in every state.