For several reasons, Idaho is one of the least talked about of the major elk hunting destinations in the country. It may have something to do with its geographic location; west of the first line of elk states for eastern hunters (Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico), and those west of Idaho have their own elk to hunt, with the exception of much of California. But even for the Californians, it’s often easier to get to Colorado, Arizona, Utah or Oregon. Maybe it’s the negative press from the wolf reintroduction (but this is affecting Montana, Wyoming, and New Mexico too). It also seems Utah and Arizona overshadows Idaho, probably due to the number of tightly managed trophy areas. Whatever the reason, Idaho is really a state that deserves a closer look, especially if you don’t like draws or if you feel disadvantaged with no preference points.
As always, a little geography lesson is in order here before we get into some specifics. Much of the rugged central/eastern border with Montana is the Continental Divide, while the Snake River makes up a portion of the central/western border. About two-thirds of Idaho is public land, totaling approximately 25 million acres, with about 11 million of those being BLM. BLM lands make up much of the plains and hills of southern Idaho, while the US Forest Service controls the vast mountainous region of Central Idaho. Smaller national forests, interspersed with private lands occur throughout the mountains of the Panhandle, Eastern, and Southern Idaho. Though there are National Forest lands in Western Idaho along the Snake River and Hell’s Canyon, much of Western and South- Central Idaho is private land and agricultural country along Interstates 84, 86 and 15, then north along Highway 95.
Idaho is known for its rugged country, but it isn’t particularly high elevation compared to Colorado. The mountains and canyons provide for major elevation gains and losses, most notably in Hells Canyon, which is over 6,000 feet deep and deeper than the Grand Canyon! Though Borah Peak is over 12,000 feet, very little of Idaho’s huntable country is above 10,000 feet.
Another general rule of thumb when thinking about Idaho’s elk country is that the further north you go, the denser the forests will be. Northern Idaho is home to most of the serious commercial timber country. This is also whitetailed deer country, though mule deer are certainly present too. As you go further south, the mountains will be more open and quite a bit drier. Many of the huge river canyons and parts of the wilderness areas are almost totally devoid of timber due to large and frequent fires.
Idaho is unfortunately one of those states that require an expensive hunting license before you can purchase a tag. This shouldn’t be much of a deterrent to the nonresident hunter, but $154 is a lot of fuel. On top of that $154 is another $416 for the elk tag, totaling $570, which is still fairly competitive with the surrounding states. So, just don’t see that elk tag fee of $416 and think you’re looking at a screaming deal. For another $300 you can tack on a deer license, so for the combination at $870, you’re right in line with Colorado, and a little less than Wyoming.
While Colorado is of course the 800 pound gorilla of elk hunting with about 25% of the nation’s elk and nonresident OTC tags. A little mentioned fact is that Idaho is also OTC for many areas. There are quotas on a few zones, but as of July 15th, there are still tags available for the two most interesting zones. I’ll get to that in a second, but it looks like the only limited area (besides the controlled, draw only areas) that has sold out is the Sawtooth Zone A tag (archery). This area isn’t far from the major population center of Idaho, and so makes sense that it would sell out quickly.
More importantly to the travelling hunter looking for a unique opportunity are the Middle Fork and Selway B tags, which are rifle bull tags that open September 15th (middle of the rut!). These areas are in the middle of Frank Church and Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Areas, combining for a total of 3.6 million acres of roadless country. It isn’t easy getting in and out of these areas, but it’s an awesome opportunity for someone looking for a little adventure. When I bought one of these tags about three years ago, the tag was nearly sold out back in March. This year, there are still about 285 B tags available between these two zones. Given the popularity of Colorado’s muzzleloader tags, it’s amazing that more people aren’t aware of the fact that you can rifle hunt Idaho elk in the rut, with what is essentially an OTC tag.
Another perceived advantage to the new nonresident elk hunter is that Idaho does not operate with a preference system for their controlled hunts. For the time being, only New Mexico and Idaho are without any sort of preference or bonus points for previously unsuccessful applicants. This only becomes a problem when you’ve tried over and over to draw a tag, but the first timer, you’re on a level playing field with everyone else.
The bulk of Idaho’s elk are in the mountainous central zones. These are also the areas that have been struggling to meet their objectives since the reintroduction of wolves. The negative publicity has no doubt hurt Idaho’s license sales and reputation among hunters, but for those looking for an adventure in truly wild country, I’d still recommend giving it some serious consideration. Page 27 of Idaho’s 2011 big game brochure  (PDF file) does a good job of helping you visualize the areas that are below objective.
Unlike Colorado, most of the units with the highest success rates are those within the huge wilderness areas. This may be due to the fact that the Forest Service has established small airstrips throughout the wilderness areas, facilitating access for hunters and making drop camps cheaper and quicker than your traditional outfitted horseback hunts.
So there’s the grand overview, I can delve further into some of the more interesting units in the future if you’re interested. Suffice to say, the serious backcountry areas with September rifle hunts are the most interesting to me. While Wyoming and Montana have a few of these opportunities also, since nonresidents are prohibited from hunting wilderness in Wyoming without a guide, and Montana’s tags have gotten to be so outrageously expensive, Idaho is on my short list of places to return to.