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The Wapiti Renaissance

NAE Photo The Wapiti Renaissance
Lead Photo by Nicole Belke

It’s September in Colorado and two life-­long friends, who have shared countless deer camps together, are bowhunting elk on public ground. One is a guide, but this isn’t a paid hunt, just pals going after big game. He has chased these bugling behemoths across the West—New Mexico, Arizona, Roosevelts in Oregon and Washington … you name it, he’s been there. The other has never left his home state to hunt. Never wanted to. His freezer gets filled with meat from a whitetail buck and a few does every fall—why go anywhere else?

His guide buddy begged him forever to come on this trip. “Get out of the damn tree stand, get in shape, come hike the backcountry with me, we’ll kill a giant, maybe.”

But he was a homebody. His deer lease was 20 minutes from the house. Why? Why go West, when everything he could ever want was a quick truck ride away?

The guide would not relent, or stop calling and texting. He knew his childhood buddy needed this, would get addicted to this … if he would just get off his butt. And finally, after years of prodding, it happened. After a plane ride and a long truck ride from the airport, the hunter, who only had ever chased local whitetails, hopped out of the cab and looked up through the green meadows and timber to the mountain peaks. In the morning, dew covered the tops of his old hiking boots, the water trickling into his wool socks. His feet slid inside the soles.

They stopped so he could tighten up the laces, and as his knee touched wet grass the roar of a massive 6-­by-­6 bull sent adrenaline racing through his body, a nervous sweat dripped from his brow, leaking down the side of his cheek and onto the toe of worn-­in boot leather.

It went silent. The guide let out his own bugle and the bull almost immediately responded with a bellow and appeared from the aspens.

The arrow was already nocked. The deer hunter instinctively knew what was about to take place and he drew back on his compound, heart racing like a 750-­horsepower NASCAR engine, and let the arrow loose.

Eastern Extinction

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Canada’s elk populations.

This moment almost never was. Not because the deer hunter missed a flight, or rolled an ankle jumping a dry creek bed, but because elk were nearly hunted to extinction in the early 1900s. Like the market duck hunters, early settlers killed elk by the thousands, even millions, but not for tablefare at chintzy East Coast eateries like the market hunters. They slaughtered them for horn and hide and because they could—there was not yet a North American conservation model to stop them.

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This chart shows how North American elk populations have grown since 1975.

A few hundred years ago, elk roamed the plains with the buffalo. You could find them in herds east of the Mississippi River—10 million elk populated the U.S. and Canada then. But by the early 20th century there were only 45,000 to 50,000 remaining, according to the Rock Mountain Elk Foundation.

“It was much like the American buffalo,” said RMEF conservation chief Blake Henning. “One day there were millions of them and then there were so few, you almost couldn’t find one.”

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Elk populations went from 10 million down to 45,000 to 50,000 by the early 1900s. Thanks to the work of countless conservationists, the herds have returned and elk are being reintroduced in many of the eastern states they once roamed.

The early 1900s was a time of progressive conservation. It’s when hunters started realizing killing animals en masse was not the proper way to manage game species. Restrictions on the number of animals you could kill were being adopted, with men like Aldo Leopold and President Teddy Roosevelt (for whom the Roosevelt elk is named) leading the charge.

“You had the establishment of Boone & Crockett, which pushed for better management of game, and the implementation of the federal duck stamp,” Henning said. “I think there were probably a lot of people that had a hand in saving elk, and many of the species we are still privileged to hunt.”

Roosevelt was an avid hunter, and went from partaking in the overharvest of animals to becoming a leader and the most forthright conservationist, establishing 150 national forests, 51 bird preserves, four national game preserves, and five national parks in his eight years in office. He wrote extensively about western elk herds too, hunting them on and near his Rocky Mountain ranch. Here is an excerpt from his book Ranch Life and The Hunting Trail, revealing his fascination with elk.

“Nearby the call of the bulls in the rutting season—their ‘whistling,’ as the frontiersmen term it—sounds harsh and grating; but heard in the depths of their own mountain fastnesses, ringing through the frosty night, and echoing across the ravines and under the silent archways of the pines, it has a grand, musical beauty of its own that is to me, one of the most attractive sounds in nature.”

To survive, elk adapted and found refuge—from hunters—in the mountains. Before almost being expunged from existence, they dwelled on the plains as they mainly graze on grasses, sedges and flowering plants, even tree bark. The migration to higher elevation showed their ability to adapt, which is one of the reasons they survived in the early 1900s and even today—1 million strong. They are smart animals, and it’s common to see them in places where they know there are no predators (man or beast). When you head west, don’t be surprised to see elk near the highway, or even near town. Elk know there are grizzly, wolf and mountain lion waiting to feast on them at higher ranges, and many seek out safer havens.

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President Teddy Roosevelt was one of many responsible for the resurgence of elk in North America.

Surviving Wolves

That’s not to say predators can’t destroy a population of elk. In the mid-­1990s, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park to the chagrin of hunters, particularly outfitters, and devastated the Yellowstone elk herd, decimating it from 19,000 to below 4,000 by 2012. When the wolves were introduced, there were probably too many elk as food sources were becoming scarce because of the ballooned population. But the wolf kills were out of control. A combination of proper management, delisting the apex predators, and disease outbreaks among the now over-­populated wolves, resulted in a healthier Yellowstone elk herd, which is now estimated at 5,000 to 6,000.

“The wolves came in and they had this huge prey base, and the elk weren’t familiar with these large predators, and so there was a period of adjustment, which resulted in elk numbers plummeting,” Henning said.

Elk are a true symbol of the mountain west, sought after by so many eastern hunters who have never experienced the excitement of spot-­and-­stalk hunting. But elk are also popping up in states like Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, and many more, which you can see on the population map at the end of this article.

In the 1960s, game managers started taking Rocky Mountain elk to Pennsylvania, which is one of a few eastern states that has an elk season (Kentucky is also a notable one). There are more states reintroducing elk, though just a few have limited entry hunts. Wisconsin, which is struggling with Great Lakes wolves preying on their herd, had its first state-­regulated elk season last year near Clam Lake, and a second herd near Jackson has been introduced. Missouri may be set to have a season as soon as next year, and Arkansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Virginia and North Carolina all have elk.

“We have found elk to be very adaptable,” Henning said. “When they started moving Rocky Mountain elk into Kentucky, they placed them in reclaimed coal mine areas and they flourished. We are having a bit of an issue now with too many trees shading out grasses and shrubs, but they have always adapted.”

Our whitetail deer hunter from the beginning of the story is a true account of a family member and his grade school buddy who made it big as a fly fishing outfitter and accomplished elk hunter. The deer hunter shot a bull of a lifetime, though it would have never happened without the help of an old friend.

If you are looking to head west, go for it. But when you make that decision, the real work begins. The process for drawing elk tags can be complicated, especially for non-­residents. Draws are typically months in advance of the season, but if you already missed one, don’t be discouraged. There are still tags to be had, you just have to be willing to do the research.

More advice to get you started:

“Colorado is a state with the most elk and is friendly to non-­residents, because you can still buy a tag over-the-counter in certain places,” Henning said (Idaho, too). “My advice is do a lot of research and get way ahead of the game; give it a year or two if you have to. If you have the money and want a better chance at being successful, start talking to some outfitters.”

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A breakdown of elk populations in the U.S. by state.


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