DIY Elk Hunters – Choose an Elk Unit in a National Forest

cow elk in mixed aspen and conifer

Cow Elk on My Local National Forest.

There is no substitute for having local knowledge of an area, but few first time DIY elk hunters have that local knowledge.

To increase the odds of finding elk, I recommend that first time DIY elk hunters start by hunting in one of the National Forests.

No Substitute for Local Knowledge of Hunting Area

I have been hiking, camping, scouting, fishing and hunting different regions and habitats of the Inter-mountain West since I moved here 25 years ago and have concentrated on several units near home for the last 12 years. I also try to spend a few days each year hunting and scouting in areas I’ve never been before.

If you came to my backyard, it will take you many years to learn what I know about the area, especially as it relates to finding elk. But it would also take me years to learn what you know about your most familiar stomping grounds.

Since I have local knowledge of my area, I know where I can usually find elk and where I can avoid most other hunters. I know when and where to find elk in different habitats on the National Forests, BLM lands or on State lands.

I know where there is a chance to find elk close to a road and I know areas where elk go to water when it’s hot and dry. I have backup areas to check when my honey holes don’t pay off and I constantly search for new areas.

I also have favorite camping areas where I can start hunting as soon as I step out of the wall tent.

DIY Hunters without Local Knowledge must Work Harder

On opening day I might have 30 places in mind that I could go while the a new hunter may still be taking care of logistics and doing basic scouting.

Some hunters prefer to find someone to guide them, but that is not how most DIY elk hunters want to hunt. Either because they can’t afford several thousand dollars to pay someone or simply want to do it themselves.

But that is the challenge. And what an accomplishment to know you could be “dropped off” anywhere in elk habitat on public land and find elk.

That’s why I try to spend a few days hunting in a new area every year. I love to explore new country and it adds to my list of “honey holes” and “back up” places.

If you are going to hunt a place for the first time, it probably doesn’t matter which unit you choose to hunt as long as you choose a unit that actually has elk during that time of year.

If you don’t have any first hand knowledge of an area, I suggest you should start your search for a hunt unit on one of the National Forests.

Elk Habitat in 12 Forested Eco-regions and 5 Desert Eco-regions

maps of western forested level iii ecoregions

Map 1. Click for Larger Map – See Eco-Region Map Codes in Table Below.

Elk can be found in a variety of habitats in 12 different forested Eco-regions and five Desert Eco-regions in the best seven elk hunting states.

But the highest concentrations of elk during the early hunting seasons (August through October) are mainly in the forested mountain areas, which are primarily found in our National Forests.

Map 1 shows the 12 Forested Eco-regions in the Western United States for Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington & Wyoming.

Western Forested Level III Eco-Region Map Codes

N Code Eco-Region States
 1   1 Coast Range Oregon & Washington
 2   4 Cascades Oregon & Washington
 3   9 Eastern Cascade Slopes & Foothills Oregon & Washington
 4  11 Blue Mountains Oregon & Washington
 5  15 Northern Rockies Idaho, Montana & Washington
 6  16 Idaho Batholith Idaho & Montana
 7  17 Middle Rockies Idaho, Montana, Wyoming & S.D.
 8  19 Wasatch & Uinta Mountains Utah, Idaho & Wyoming
 9  21 Southern Rockies Colorado, Wyoming & Utah
10  41 Canadian Rockies Montana
11  77 North Cascades Washington
12  78 Klamath Mountains Oregon

Note that the 5 desert Eco-Regions also have elk habitat, but they are not shown in Map 1. All white areas of Map 1 are desert and/or grassland type Eco-regions or valley Eco-regions that are now mostly human population areas (Puget Lowlands and Willamette Valley).

First Time DIY Elk Hunters should Hunt on a National Forest

national forest map - wester states

Map 2. National Forest Lands in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming Total almost 94 Million Acres.

If we ignore all other elk habitat and all other public lands that still leaves almost 94 million acres in 12 forested Eco-regions of Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington & Wyoming (states that still have General Elk seasons).

There are differences in habitat, terrain, elevation and environmental conditions between the 12 forested Eco-regions of the western U.S., but they all have elk.

I believe that with no other knowledge of the area, the average first time or non-resident hunter has the best chance of finding elk by hunting in any of the Western National Forests.

Find Your National Forest Here (scroll down to see map)

Coming soon – If you are hunting an area for the first time and don’t have a friend, relative or a guide that knows the area, your best option is to choose several National Forests in the State you want to hunt, then chose a hunt unit based upon the harvests statistics.

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