Hunt Elk in Idaho with Over-the-Counter Tags in 2017

Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) manages elk in 28 Elk Management Zones and 96 management units. Idaho has General Season elk tags that can be bought over the counter (OTC) for both residents and non-residents in all but one of the elk management zones and all but three management units. There are options for hunting elk with OTC tags with archery, rifle (or any weapon) and muzzleloader seasons.

Over-the-Counter Elk Tags Available to Non-residents in Idaho

Idaho has made a few changes the last few years. New hunts have been added and other hunts have been removed; this represents the latest available information:

  1. Elk can be hunted with Any Legal Weapon (Rifle Season) in 80 units with 125 different hunts (See Figure 1)
  2. Archery  – Elk can be hunted in 77 units with 105 different hunts (Figure 2)
  3. Muzzleloader – Elk can be hunted in 36 units with 45 different hunts (Figure 3)
  4. Short Range Weapons offer additional hunting opportunities with 5 hunts in 4 units

With the three different weapon choices above, Idaho offers up to six options to hunt elk:

  1. Any elk hunts
  2. Antlered only (Bull elk)
  3. Spike Elk only
  4. Antlerless only (cow/calf)
  5. Brow-tined Bull Elk only
  6. Spike or antlerless elk hunts

Key to Idaho OTC Elk Hunt Map Images

idaho general elk rifle map with public land

Figure 1. Idaho Any Weapon Elk Over-the-Counter Hunt Units

Figures 1 – 3 show Idaho Elk Units that have OTC tags available for resident and non-resident hunters for any weapon, archery and muzzleloader hunts.

Public Land is shown in the orange/yellow color and private land or other public land where access is questionable is shown in white. Hunt Units that do not have OTC tags or no hunting areas are shown in gray. National Park Service and Department of Defense lands, which usually do not allow hunting are shown in black.

Public Land in Idaho

idaho general elk archery map public land

Figure 2. Idaho Archery Elk Over-the-Counter Hunt Units

About 66 percent of Idaho is public land.

There is over 20.4 million acres of US Forest Service land, 11.6 million acres of BLM land and over 2.7 million acres of state lands open to hunting for a total of over 34.8 million acres.

2015 Idaho Elk Harvest

idaho general mo elk map public land

Figure 3. Idaho Muzzleloader Elk Over-the-Counter Hunt Units

The Latest available harvest data is from 2015. According to IDFG data 15,048 elk were harvested with General (OTC tags) and 8,799 elk were harvested in controlled (Limited Entry) elk hunts in 2015, for a total of 23,847 elk (13,094 Bulls and 10,753 cows).

The harvest was up from the 2014 elk harvest for General Season tags (up from 12,866 in 2014) and for Controlled Tags (up from 7,190 in 2014).

2015 Idaho Elk Hunting Success

  • Total 2015 Success – 103,213 total hunters harvested 23,847 elk = 23.1% success
  • General 2015 Success – 83,404 hunters harvested 15,048 elk = 18.0% success
  • Controlled 2015 Success – 19,809 hunters harvested 8,799 elk = 44.4% success

2015 General (OTC) Hunt Success

  • General Archery Elk – 23,924 hunters harvested 4,226 elk = 17.6% success
  • General Muzzleloader Elk – 6,775 hunters harvested 1,156 elk = 17.1% success
  • General Any Weapon Elk – 52,699 hunters harvested 9,655 elk = 18.30% success
  • Total General -83,404 hunters harvested 15,048 elk = 18.0% success

2015 Controlled (Draw) Hunt Success

  • Controlled Archery Elk – 1,071 hunters harvested 501 elk = 46.8% success
  • Controlled Muzzleloader Elk – 1,168 hunters harvested 272 elk = 23.3% success
  • Controlled Any Weapon Elk – 16,441 hunters harvested 7,407 elk = 45.1% success
  • Total Controlled Elk harvest – 19,809 hunters harvested 8,799 elk = 44.4% success

Idaho Elk Harvest Data Compared to 6 Other Western States With OTC Tags

Table 1. Idaho Elk Harvest 2012 – 2015

Year Bull Elk Cow Elk Gen Elk Control Elk Total Elk Hunters Gen Success Control Success
2012  9,466  6,553 10,241   5,784 16,025   83,693   14.8%    40.4%
2013  9,348  6,874  9,853   6,373 16,226   88,978   13.6%    37.9%
2014 11,293  8,773 12,886   7,190 20,076   96,212   16.3%    41.1%
2015 13,094 10,753 15,048   8,799 23,847  103,213   18.0%    44.4%

Elk Habitat and Idaho Ecoregions

Elk can be found in forested and shrub habitats in at least 9 of Idaho’s 10 ecoregions, but 34% of the elk harvested in 2012 were from the Idaho Batholith Region in the center of the state (Table 2).

The next highest ecoregions for elk harvest were the Northern Rockies of the panhandle and the Middle Rockies along the eastern border with Montana and Wyoming; both regions with 22% of the total elk harvest.

Seven percent of elk in Idaho were harvested in the Snake River Plain and the remaining 14% was harvested from the other four ecoregions combined, which includes the Northern Basin and Range and the very small sections of the Blue Mountains, Columbia Plateau and the Wasatch Mountains.

Table 2. Estimate of 2012 Idaho Elk Harvest and Hunter Success by Ecoregion

Eco Region Total Hunters Total Elk Harvested Success Total Hunts Elk Per Hunt Percent of Total Harvest
Idaho Batholith  27,421     5,465    20%    93    59       34%
Middle Rockies  14,977     3,569    24%    65    55       22%
Northern Rockies  25,773     3,537    14%    24   147       22%
Snake River Plain   4,901     1,160    24%    34    34        7%
Blue Mountains   3,334       862    26%    10    86        5%
Columbia Plateau   1,723       536    31%    16    34        3%
Northern Basin & Range   3,220       435    14%    22    19        3%
Wasatch Mountains   2,209       388    18%     4    97        2%

Table 2 is ranked by total elk harvest, with 5,465 elk harvested in the Idaho Batholith region and only 388 elk harvested in the very small Wasatch Mountains region. But since there were were relatively few elk hunts in the Wasatch Mountains (4 hunts in 3 units) and Blue Mountains (10 hunts in 2 units), with the exception of the Northern Rockies units, these units produced the highest number of elk per hunt.

Total hunter success was highest in the Columbia Plateau (31%) and lowest in the Northern Rockies and the Northern Basin and Range ecoregions (14%).

bdc scope reticle with elk in
Check out My DIY Elk Hunting Guide – 3rd Edition updated for 2017


  1. Hi Dan,
    Just purchased your book and look forward to reading it. I have also read many of the questions and answers you have provided on your website. After reading these I have a few questions of my own.
    First of all, my brother and I are planning a DIY Archery elk hunt in Colorado next year and are trying to narrow down where we want to hunt. We both have 3 preference points so we have a lot of options. We are both in good shape and have no problem going long distances and roughing it.
    We would like a good chance at a decent bull. Does not have to be a monster but would like a good bull. From my research I have narrowed down our search to Units 12, 22, 39, 501, 57, and 60. Basically these are the units we qualify for that have had good % success for bulls since 2013.
    You have mentioned in some of your comments to look for units far away from big cities and you have also mentioned selecting units with over 100 elk harvested. I was wondering if not meeting these last 2 requirements is a deal breaker?
    For example unit 39 is close to Denver and only had 14 elk harvested in 2015 but only 75 archery tags were given. It also had high success rates for bulls in 2013 and 2014 compared to other units. Should we avoid units with such a small number of licenses because we do not know the terrain?

    • Hi Brandon: This should probably be on the Colorado page instead of Idaho, but seems like you’ve been doing your homework. Not knowing the terrain will put you at a disadvantage, but no, it is not a deal breaker. Somebody will harvest good bulls off those units and it might as well be you. I bet you have will have an experience of a lifetime, even if you don’t. And better yet, you will learn the terrain and you will eventually be successful.

      I generally recommend that new hunters to an area pick units that had 100+ elk harvested because that means there are lots of elk and usually lots of country. Obviously the number of tags issued is important, but also the number of total hunters in the unit, so the percent success is really the most important unless the sample sizes (total number of hunters and elk) are too small. Example – 50% success would seem like a good unit, but maybe not if only 1 elk were harvested by 2 hunters (unit 1 in 2015). Average archery success in 2015 statewide in Colorado was 12.3% (5,746 elk/ 46,854 hunters – in 335,894 total hunt days = 58.5 hunt days per elk).
      But remember, some guys never get out of the truck. I ran into an archer one morning years ago while I was out to do a survey. He asked me a zillion questions about where the elk were while I was getting my gear out of the truck. In the end, he said he had to go back home because he forgot his arrow release. I don’t know if he included that as a hunt day or not.

      Keep in mind, areas close to the big cities have lots of campers and day hikers and people out just to look at the fall colors, walk their dogs, burn a burger over the fire or just to take wedding pictures. If you get off the roads, they are generally not a problem, but being farther away from the big cities reduces this kind of disturbance.

      Obviously, the reason not knowing an area puts you a disadvantage is because it takes time to learn what you need to know. Think about the places you hunt now. How long would it take a person of equal ability as yourself to learn what you know about the area? This is why many people hunt with guides (even on public land). The guide should know where to go. They should know where they elk are because they’ve already scouted or they know where they should be because of past experience. Heck, the guide can even tell you when to pull the trigger (or release the arrow in your case).

      As of this minute, if you guys picked a unit, you don’t know where to camp and don’t know the areas to hunt or how to access them. Do all the “Google Earth scouting” you can and look at the topo maps so you know what kind of terrain can be realistically traversed. But you will learn. And you will learn more each year.
      Check out some of the Elk Management plans for some of the units you mentioned to see if it helps make your decision about which unit to hunt. (e-22; includes unit 57), (e-18; includes unit 501) or (e-39; includes unit 39).

  2. Jeff Marlow says:

    Starting to plan our first ever elk hunt and thinking Idaho in 2017. Any help you can give us in picking an area to hunt for bulls of any size and suggestions on rifles to use and time of year for best success.

    I have a 7.62 rifle but not sure it is big enough for elk. We have all been successful with deer hunting and want to take it to the next level. We have 4-wheelers and campers and are thinking maybe a 5 day hunt. Thank you for your advice.

    • By sheer numbers, units 39, 4, 10A and 28 had the most bull elk harvested in the 2015 General Elk hunt (rifle), but success was low in most of those units ranging from 16 – 33% and these units also had between 1,250 to 3,743 hunters.
      Success was highest in units 30, 50, 29, 36A an 37 at 48 – 73% with between 89 – 285 hunters. Most of these units are in the Sawtooth or Salmon-Challis National Forests.

      Spend lots of time looking at maps and google earth so you have an idea of the terrain and habitat and public land before choosing a unit. Also look at forest service travel maps. Some areas will let you ride your 4-wheelers almost everywhere and others are very restrictive. My advice is get off the roads and trails.

      As for your rifle, I would prefer to see a well placed shot with a .270 than a bad shot with a 300 Win Mag. Unless you spend lots of time shooting at long range, all shots above 300 yards are problematic. Either spend lots of time and money dialing in at long range or work hard to get close to elk. Too many people will take a 500 yard shot, but never hunt more than 500 yards away from roads and trails.

      Good luck and let me know how it goes.

  3. Kris Kluver says:

    I love your site! Thank you so much for putting this together.
    Me and three of my friends are planning on going to Idaho to rifle hunt elk in 2017. We have another friend that lives near areas 50 and 51 and has horses!
    Yet, after talking with the Idaho Fish and Game, we got the impression that drawing an elk tag in those areas is close to impossible for rifle.
    When you say “over the counter” are you talking about about a draw? We would like bull tags, but would be okay with cow only. Any thoughts on our chances to be able to hunt in those areas? Thanks, Kris – South Dakota

    • Thanks Kris. By “over-the-counter” tags, I mean tags you can walk in and buy over the counter or over the internet. Look back at the post at Figure 1. The white or orange/yellow areas show units where these tags are available during the rifle season. They are not available in the gray areas. The yellow areas show public land.
      So, there are OTC tags in units 50 and 51.
      Some areas have an unlimited number of tags and other areas are limited and are first come, first serve, so you need to buy tags early.
      In 2015, units 50 and 51, had 500 hunters with General season (OTC) tags, that harvested 214 elk (33 bull elk in unit 51 and 181 cow elk combined). There are not many OTC bull elk tags available in those units, so to hunt bulls there you do need to draw the limited entry tags (or as Idaho calls them; Controlled Hunts).
      Even as a non-resident, you can hunt elk every year in Idaho with OTC tags (as well as Colorado, Oregon, Utah and Washington).
      Your friend in Idaho (with the horses) should understand how the system works.

  4. Craig Peppe says:

    I am considering a 2017 Idaho Archery Elk hunt and am looking at several factors. I saw a 2014 Idaho reg that allowed non-resident, disabled military veterans (>40%) discounted Elk tags. Has this been changed to Resident disabled vets only?

    • Craig: Yes, non-resident disabled military veterans can get reduced fees in Idaho:
      Nonresident disabled American veterans may be eligible for reduced fees for licenses and tags. The nonresident DAV hunting with 3-day fishing license, $31.75, allows the nonresident disabled veteran to purchase reduced fee nonresident DAV tags for deer $23.75, elk $39.75, bear $23.75, or turkey $19.75. See below for what documentation is required for eligibility.”
      The link at the Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game is here.
      Good Luck and Thank You for your service.

  5. Hey Dan, I am in the information gathering stage of an Elk/Mule Deer hunt in Idaho. It will be DIY with a couple of buddies. I have been pouring over the information posted on the IDFG website, but it’s a little overwhelming.
    The biggest hurdle seems to be finding the best area to maximize opportunities for both species with a rifle.
    The info you’ve provided seems to match what I have found, but I feel I to need more guidance before I pull the trigger on this trip as this is a big decision for us. Would IDFG be of assistance? I called once and they were busy and never returned my call. Does your book provide current information on this subject for Idaho that could provide assistance?

    • Hi Sean: I know what you mean about getting enough information before pulling the trigger on an expensive out of state hunting trip.
      I think the hardest part of a DIY Western Hunt is to get the info you need from the State Wildlife agencies. It’s their ballgame and if you want to hunt in their state, you have to learn their rules and figure most things out on your own. This is were a DIY hunt starts.
      They states want you to come hunt, but they are not generally customer friendly in the sense that they don’t have to be competitive. In reality, the western elk hunting states do compete for non-resident dollars, but they don’t seem to realize that.
      And since we do want to hunt in their states, we find a way to get the information we need even if they make it difficult (we do their jobs for them and then give them money).
      My book (DIY Elk Hunting Guide) shows you where to find all the important information at the State’s websites for Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington & Wyoming and other sites that have useful information. I also keep updated links to that information on my website because the state agencies seem to change links on their websites at the slightest whim.
      To find the “best” place to hunt both mule deer and elk, you will have to do your homework. Sure, you can call Idaho Fish and Game, and they may be helpful, but who do you think you will get to talk too? From my personal experience as a state wildlife biologist, most of the folks that answer the phones are the same people that sell the licenses. They are mostly city folks that work 9-5 in the office. They may live in Idaho, but most of them do not hunt. They know the rules, regulations and the names or numbers of the hunt units and they may know where most of the locals want to buy tags.
      If you can actually get a biologist on the phone (the folks that do the surveys or the habitat work), they can give you good information. But I promise you they get those request all the time and they basically get tired of it. Same as hunter’s forums where non-residents ask for help. Some hunters will help and others will curse you for being lazy.
      The good news is most units have elk and mule deer. I always suggest looking at harvest reports to see which units have lots of animals. Sure you can be one of 20 hunters that harvests an animal in a unit with low populations (and usually low numbers of hunters), but it’s probably best to choose a unit that had hundreds if not thousands of animals harvested.
      Make sure to look at the success rates. That usually tells more about the toughness of the terrain than anything else. (Hunting success is always lower in Oregon and Washington than the other states.) Many people can find animals in easy terrain, so success is high. Few hunters can go deep in tough terrain and bring animals out, so success is low. If the state warns you that success in a particular unit is low, or access is difficult, or the unit is mostly private land, it is best to believe them. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hunt there, but you need more information before choosing a hunt unit like that.
      That is one reason I like to know as much about the terrain and habitat as I do about harvest data and why I put that kind of information in my book.
      No question, you will be at a disadvantage on your first hunt, no matter what unit (or units) you hunt. As of now, you don’t even know where to set up camp, but you will learn.
      Another part of the problem of deciding where to hunt is learning the “legal stuff”; Season dates, weapon restrictions, restricted to hunt in one unit vs can hunt many units or statewide, required licenses, tags or stamps and how easy or difficult it is to get a tag (limited entry or an over-the-counter general tag).
      After you do decide where to hunt and apply for or buy a tag, then you can actually start scouting. Start with the basics… where are you going to camp? Where are the trail heads? Where are the water sources?
      In the old days, we looked at maps, now we can look at Google Earth.
      There are plenty of places to camp is some areas and not so much in others. The locals will have dibs because they park their campers and set up tents weeks ahead of time. Still, most areas have lots of room for everyone. I was shocked to see how many people were camped at a new area I hunted, but I actually think it’s a good that many people camp close together and not spread out so much. This would help keep elk in areas that can be hunted instead of pushing them farther back.
      The crowds will get thin as soon as you get 500 yards off the road, but most of your best scouting can only begin after you get on the ground. Get in shape, so you can hunt hard everyday and you will find elk (and mule deer).
      Good luck and let me know what you decide.
      I got elk in my freezer. Now go get yours.

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