Elk Harvest Comparison of Western States 2012 – 2016

bull elk game camera photo

Photo taken with Moultrie Game Cam. Click on photo for larger image.

I live in the Inter-mountain West and can hunt elk every year with Over-the-Counter (OTC) tags, but constantly keep track of harvest data in other western states for out of state elk hunts.

I gathered data from the state harvest reports to compare the elk harvest data from all western states that still have OTC elk tags.

At the beginning of the New Year (2018), the most up to date harvest data is from the 2016 hunt seasons. This page was originally started in 2012 and has been been updated every year and now includes elk harvest data for each year since 2012.

New tables include Total Elk Harvested, Total Bull Elk Harvested, Total Hunters and Hunter Success.

I originally kept track of the elk harvest from 11 Western States, but now only keep collect harvest data from seven Western States that still have Over-the-Counter (general season) elk hunts; Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Five of these states (Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Utah & Washington) still have OTC tags available for non-resident hunters.

I dropped Arizona, California, Nevada and New Mexico. because these states only offer limited entry elk hunting (except for a very limited number of OTC tags in Arizona).

Table 1. Total Elk Harvested in 7 Western States with OTC Tags 2012 – 2016

State 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 AVG
Colorado 43,490 43,606 41,900 44,852 39,306 43,631
Wyoming 26,365 25,968 25,905 24,749 25,852 25,768
Montana 20,550 20,154 25,735 30,924 24,532 24,379
Idaho 16,028 16,231 20,088 23,836 21,326 19,502
Oregon 17,455 16,596 18,772 18,707 17,446 17,795
Utah 16,332 16,879 17,133 19,294    NA 17,410
Washington  9,162  7,246  6,966  7,829 6,796  7,600

Note: Table 1 is ranked by highest average total elk harvested to lowest. Total Elk include Bull Elk and Antlerless Elk, which includes all cows and calves, from all general (OTC) and limited entry (controlled) hunts for all weapons.

Most Elk are Harvested in Colorado

Colorado always has the largest total elk harvest every year (Table 1) and also has the most bull elk harvested (Table 2) and has averaged over 43,000 total elk and just under 22,000 total bull elk each season.

Colorado should have the largest elk harvest because it has the largest elk population, but there were also twice as many hunters in Colorado as any other state (the average is now over 219,000 – Table 3).

In fairness, Colorado has lots of different seasons, so the hunting pressure is spread out. Overall hunter success in Colorado is 5th placed at 19.4% (Table 4).

Table 2. Total Bull Elk Harvest in 7 Western States 2012 – 2016

State 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 AVG
Colorado 22,208 22,766 22,435 22,558 19,997 21,993
Montana 10,452 10,446 13,142 13,703 11,089 11,766
Wyoming 11,649 11,276 10,976 10,949 12,339 11,438
Oregon 10,963 10,801 12,065 11,598 11,054 11,296
Idaho  9,476  9,355 11,309 13,111 12,386 11,127
Utah  7,683  8,131  7,659  8,090   NA  7,891
Washington  4,945  4,075  3,838  4,467 4,074  4,280

Note: Table 2 is ranked by highest average total bull elk harvested to lowest. Bull Elk include all Antlered Elk including Spike Elk if the state keeps separate records and includes all general season and limited entry hunts for all weapons.

Wyoming and Montana Ranked 2nd and 3rd for Elk Harvest

I call Wyoming and Montana 2nd tier elk hunting states (for overall elk numbers), with total elk harvests ranging between about 20,000 to 30,000 for the 2012 – 2016 hunt seasons.

The average number of elk harvested is very similar between Wyoming (ranked 2nd), just ahead of Montana in the range of 24 – 25,000 total elk harvested.

As for total bull elk harvested, Montana ranks 2nd (average just under 12,000 bull elk) and Wyoming ranks 3rd after the 2016 harvest.

Idaho has ranked with both Wyoming and Montana the past two years for total bull elk harvest, but the 5 year average still ranks behind Oregon.

In this “2nd Tier” group, Montana has averaged the most hunters (over 109,000) followed by Oregon and Idaho. Wyoming has the least number of hunters of all seven states with an average of only 58,100 elk hunters per season.

Wyoming claims an amazing overall 44.4% average hunter success rate (includes OTC tags), followed now by Utah at 26.2% (pending the 2016 harvest data). Idaho dropped to third place followed by Montana.

Note: Wyoming only has OTC tags available for residents and Montana has gone to a draw for Non-residents (but almost everyone still draws). Colorado and Idaho have thousands of OTC tags available for non-residents.

Table 3. Total Elk Hunters in 7 Western States 2012 – 2016

State 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 AVG
Colorado 215,326 219,166 217,769 221,274 223,745 219,456
Montana 102,861 107,568 107,663 113,959 113,577 109,126
Oregon 103,176 106,639 106,982 106,884 104,216 105,579
Idaho  83,693  88,978  96,220 103,207 101,805  94,781
Washington  67,950  68,572  66,606  68,012 63,557  66,939
Utah  59,175  66,374  69,503  71,175    NA  66,557
Wyoming  57,331  57,785  58,266  58,959 58,159  58,100

Note: Table 3 is ranked by highest average Number of Hunters to lowest.

Idaho, Oregon and Utah Elk Harvest Ranked 4th, 5th and 6th

Idaho, Oregon and Utah are third tier elk hunting states. They were fairly close for the total number of elk harvest with all three states averaging between 17,000 – 19,000 total elk harvested in the last four or five years.

Oregon and Idaho have averaged about 11,000 bull elk and Utah has averaged about 8,000 bull elk harvested each season.

Oregon averages nearly 106,000 elk hunters each season (3rd highest), Idaho has averaged 94,000 and while hunters in Utah are increasing, the four year average has only been about 66,000 hunters (2nd lowest).

In this group, the success rate is lowest in Oregon at 16.8% (6th place overall), and hunter success in Idaho averages 20.9%. That makes Utah look pretty good with a 26.2% success rate (4th place) and all three of these states issue thousands of OTC tags. Elk Populations in Utah are still growing, so look for lots of antlerless tags to be issued in the future.

Table 4. Elk Hunter Success in 7 Western States 2012 – 2016

State 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 AVG
Wyoming 46.0% 44.9% 44.5% 42.0% 44.5% 44.4%
Utah 27.5% 25.4% 24.7% 27.1%   NA 26.2%
Montana 20.0% 18.7% 23.9% 27.1% 21.6% 22.3%
Idaho 19.2% 18.2% 20.9% 23.1% 22.5% 20.9%
Colorado 20.0% 19.9% 19.2% 20.3% 17.6% 19.4%
Oregon 16.4% 15.6% 17.5% 17.5% 16.7% 16.9%
Washington 13.5% 10.6% 10.5% 11.5% 10.7% 11.4%

Note: Table 4 is ranked by highest average Hunter Success to lowest.

Washington Elk Harvest Ranked 7th

Washington State is a 4th tier elk hunting state, but Washington still offers many OTC tags, so there is a better chance to hunt elk in Washington than in Arizona, California, Nevada and New Mexico combined.

Hunters have harvested between 7,000 and 9,000 elk each season in Washington (2012 – 2016) and have harvested between 3,800 and 5,000 bull elk.

Washington has averaged about 68,000 elk hunters per season, which is more than Utah and Wyoming. Hunting elk in Washington must be tough since the overall harvest success is only 11.5%.

Days of Hunter Effort per Elk Harvest

I’ve started including a new metric that is used by a few states (Wyoming) that I think is a useful compromise between a hunters chances of finding elk and hunter density, and that is the number of hunter days per elk harvest. It is simply the total number of days all hunters spent in the field divided by the total number of elk harvested.

Obviously, all hunter days in the field are not equal. Some hunters climb the highest mountains and hike many miles into the backcountry and others play pocket pool most of the day at camp, but this is a fair representation of how much effort the average hunter will spend to kill an elk.

Table 5. Elk Hunter Effort to Elk Harvest in 6 Western States 2012 – 2016

Numbers represent the number of Hunter Days per Elk Harvest and the table is ranked by the average days from low to high.

State 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 AVG
Wyoming 17.6 17.8 19.2 19.5 18.3 18.5
Utah 19.2 20.8 21.5 20.3 NA 20.5
Colorado 25.5 25.4 27.6 25.9 30.0 26.8
Oregon NA 38.6 34.6 NA NA 36.5
Montana 43.2 45.7 36.7 33.9 43.5 39.9
Idaho 55.8 57.9 51.2 44.8 27.8 46.4

Remember these data are from all weapons and all seasons (general and Limited) combined. Wyoming comes out on top with a five year average of 18.5 hunting days per elk harvested. Utah is in 2nd place with a four year average of 20.5 days per elk harvest.

Colorado is in 3rd place with 26.8 days per harvest and Oregon, Montana and Idaho bring up the rear with 36, 39 and 46 days per harvest.

Washing State is not included because they do not provide hunter effort in their harvest reports. Oregon usually does not provide that data, but I found hunter recreation days for two years in 2013 and 2014, so I used it.

This is obviously related to hunting success, but it puts the amount of effort it takes for the average hunter to harvest an elk.

If harvest success is 20%, that also means 1 hunter out of five harvested an elk. Or it would take five seasons for everyone to get an elk (on average). How many days is five seasons? That depends on the state and the type of hunt, but knowing the average number of days per harvest puts it in perspective.

I know what you’re thinking. Surely we can do better than average. If it takes the average hunter 20 – 40 days to get an elk, we can do it in half that amount of time (10 – 20 days).

I’ll bet you’re right.

Want More Detail about Elk Hunting and Elk Harvest in the West?

For more detailed elk harvest information about each of these seven states, look here: Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

For a more detailed look at elk harvest for the seven states by year, look here: 2013 elk harvest, 2014 elk harvest, 2015 elk harvest and the 2016 elk harvest report coming soon.


  1. All 2012 elk harvest data is finally available, and has been updated in the table.

  2. That is very helpful. Thank you for putting this together! My wife and I are wanting to move out West but have not decided between Montana or Wyoming. One thing is for sure – the land is expensive out there. Here, in Arkansas, we are spoiled to affordable real estate.

    • Yes, the only downside to having so much public land is private land is scarce, so it sells at a premium. It will get more expensive as the population grows and especially as outsiders buy up ranches. The only land that is cheap is land without water.
      Good luck with your quest.

  3. Found this website; I’ve purchased and am now halfway through your DIY Elk Hunting Guide. I must say, it is absolutely perfect for me. My retiring parents are working on selling their farm in central Kansas and moving to the Buena Vista area. I am 35 and have never hunted, but am interested in pursuing the sport for utilitarian purposes – no photos, just meat.
    I knew nothing about tags, points, private vs. public, guided vs. drop camp vs. self-directed, but your book has introduced me to those concepts. From the looks of it, I’ll probably find myself next season hunting the public areas east of Colorado Springs/Pueblo and putting in for tags elsewhere as often as I can.
    Combined with the knowledge of my coworkers and relatives, I feel I can be successful on my first time out in these circumstances.

  4. Why wouldn’t everyone hunt Wyoming given the superior 40% success rates?

    Is it the grizzlies or is it about needing a resident guide in some parts?

    Is it a lower number of bulls? I do not understand.

    Going to buy your guide today.

    • Hi James. You raise a very good questions and it is something I have been asking myself and finally spent the time to figure out why success in Wyoming is twice as high as everyone else.
      Part of the reason is many hunters in Wyoming hunt more than one season. Therefore when the state reports the data as number of active hunters, they are telling the truth, but not the whole truth. The number is accurate, it makes for an unfair comparison to other states.

      When I total all the individual units (for both general and limited tags), the number of elk harvested is the same, but the numbers of hunters goes up. That makes the hunter success per hunt go down.

      If a hunter for example hunts 3 different seasons or in 3 different units and is successful in only one season or unit, that individual hunter was 100% successful. but really went one out of three (33.33% successful).

      I will take this into account for future analysis.

      I also believe part of this is because some of the units have grizzly bears. I believe it was the Eastman’s said that exact thing in one of their T.V. shows (there were lots of units without much hunting pressure because of bears).

      And yes, you do need a guide in the designated Wilderness Areas in Wyoming. I think that confuses most hunters and turns all DIY hunters towards other states (maybe that is what Wyoming wants). But there is lots of public land outside of the wilderness areas.
      The fact that Wyoming has a good elk population, but the lowest number of hunters certainly has something to do with it, but it probably also has to do with the time of year that some of the hunts occur and the length of the hunting seasons. The average hunter in Montana spends over 19 days in the field compared to 5 or 6 in other states.
      I also think hunting pressure is low because of people’s impression that wolves are killing all the elk. Listen to what people say, but look at the data yourself. Elk harvest and hunter success has gone up in many wolf areas.
      Also, elk hunter success appears to be increasing everywhere. I think that has to do with the fact that lots of people starting to hunt elk a few years ago are becoming very experienced now.
      Where do you want to hunt?

  5. Dan,

    First of all. Outstanding DIY guide. If a good ol’ boy married a PHD wildlife biologist, we’d get another Dan Allen. Incredibly down to earth and scientific at the same time. If you ever do a course on Elk planning and hunting, sign me up.

    I’m a transplant from Kentucky to Nebraska. My best friend’s from Arkansas to Florida. White tail hunters for 10 and 20 years respectfully. Both 46 years old in moderate health.

    We’d like a good chance of success with a lot of hard work and getting in shape. I’ve been walking and running 3 miles per day at night in Nebraska to prepare for next season. Flat and windy prairie compared to the hardwood forests back home. I’ll get a back pack and switch to walking with weight soon.

    I think a bull elk would be a bonus. We believe we’ll love this sport / experience / spiritual journey perhaps although don’t know. I think we’d like to learn an area we could return to.

    I’ve skimmed the book today. Couldn’t stop reading it. I see you recommend a 1st hunt in the mountain forests. What state and GMU’s are we talking?

    Wyoming stood out to me because of the high success rates overall although I’m concerned about Grizzlies after reading your article. His 12 year old son might join us. I’ve been leaning towards Colorado as it’s 8 hours away (8-12) and friendly towards OTC although success rates are concerning. I’ve also connected to some people in Utah that would take us out (not outfitters) and Colorado although believe we can do this.

    I think we’ll need to learn how to call and stalk. Very different from stand and occasional still hunting back home although a lot more dynamic and possibly warmer in some respects.

    Based on the little information I’ve shared, what would you recommend? I’ll read the book in detail the next couple of days and follow the process for selection.

    Any advice is appreciated and again thanks for making this book. I’ve felt intimidated and overwhelmed for weeks now. The books helps big time as well as the links you’ve shared inside.


    • Hi James, Thanks for the compliment. I am not sure that “good ol’ boy married a PHD wildlife biologist” is what I have been trying to become all my life, but as Forrest Gump said to his girlfriend when she asked “Who he wanted to be?” said “Ain’t I going to be me?”

      I wanted to answer quickly, but don’t have time right now to give the answers your questions (this comment and the next) deserve. Give me a day or two to get back to this.

      Thanks again Dan

  6. Based on the book and harvest numbers and maps, I’m thinking NW wyoming or SE. Like unit 7. If I’m reading sites right, anterless wouldn’t be hard to draw.

    Wonder if I can find a unit that could draw either sex that is in green mountain region?

    Let me know if my logic’s flawed.

    • James: I will try to answer you questions from this and the previous post, but first, My goal for the DIY Elk Hunting Guide is more about providing you with information so you can decide where to hunt and to provide motivation that with planning and effort, most people can do a DIY Elk hunt.

      It doesn’t really matter which unit you hunt. Somehow people get locked into this idea that if you don’t get a tag in the the absolute best unit, the hunt will be a waste of time.
      When I say in the book that most first time DIY elk hunters should start in the Western mountain forests, that simply means pick a National Forest. There are plenty of elk on BLM and state lands too, but for a first time trip, concentrate on forest lands.
      But realize there are units with where only 5 or 6 tags are bought and only one or two elk are harvested from the entire unit. One or two of those hunters were 100% successful, but those are mostly local folks that know the area.
      In general, pick a unit that had at least 100 elk harvested and a unit that has higher success than most units in the state. You are asking about Wyoming, and I usually ask why you’ve already selected Wyoming and not Montana or Colorado? All those states are relatively close to Nebraska depending upon where you live.

      I also like to hunt areas where I can take any elk (Any age bull and/or antlerless), but most of the time I hunt my General Spike unit because it is close to home and I know the area well. If a big rack on the wall was my primary goal, then I would always hunt the any bull or either sex units depending upon what it’s called the various states.
      My goal is meat in the freezer, so as long as I can get a cow tag I fill the freezer about every other year on average.

      I have done some analysis of various state elk units and ranked them based upon total harvest and hunter success. See Top Colorado Units and Top Utah UnitsI am working on data for other states and will post those in the near future.

      You mentioned that you are already getting into shape for next season. That is always a good idea, but you have plenty of time. Be smart and don’t burn out or get injured just before hunting season. It is obvious you are already getting excited about your hunt. Isn’t that the whole point?

      You should be aware of grizzly bears if you hunt those areas. They are not a joke, but it’s like getting shark bit in the ocean. It happens, it’s devastating to those that get bit, but it is rare. More people will be killed by lighting than grizzly bears or sharks.

      Grizzly bears are always on my mind when I’m in grizzly country.

      Groups of hunters are safer than solo hunters and take all precautions and carry magnum cans (plural) of bear spray. If you get an elk down near dark, gut it and leave it whole (hide on) and come back for it with as many people as possible the next day. Leave it whole so a grizzly might only feed on part of it instead of carrying an entire quarter away and the hide will keep it clean except for areas that get chewed on.

      You didn’t mention if you plan to hunt rifle or archery seasons. That makes a big difference where you might want to hunt.
      Good luck on your hunt and let me know how it turns out.

Comments, Opinions, Questions?


Notify me of new posts by email.