How to Choose an Elk Unit for a DIY Public Land Hunt – Part II

elk in sage and pj habitat

Elk in Sage and Pinyon-Juniper Habitat

In the previous post, I mentioned there are four basic first steps for a DIY elk hunt.

First, choose a State, Learn the Rules and the Lingo, Choose a Unit and then Scout and Prepare.

I covered some factors to consider

when choosing a state for a general season elk hunt in the first post. Next, you will have to learn the complicated rules and understand the new lingo before you can buy a license and hunt legally.

In My DIY Elk Hunting guide, I mention 15 questions I want to answer about a hunt unit (not necessarily in this order):

  1. What is the name (or number) and boundaries of particular hunt units?
  2. What weapons are allowed?
  3. How easy or difficult is it to get a tag (OTC or Limited Entry)?
  4. Can I hunt in more than one unit?
  5. What are the season dates?
  6. What licenses and/or tags and/or habitat fees are required?
  7. What are the costs of all tags, licenses and habitat stamps?
  8. Are there any special restrictions?
  9. Where is the elk habitat?
  10. Where is the public land?
  11. What is the terrain and habitats like?
  12. Where are the access points/trail heads?
  13. How many elk were harvested in the unit?
  14. How many hunters were in the unit?
  15. What was the harvest success in the unit?

You will notice that most of the questions (eight) are about hunting regulations, costs and restrictions. These have to do with learning the Rules and the Lingo.

Need to Upgrade Your Hunting Optics?

hunting optics binoculars range finder spotting scopes
When you purchase products from our links, we earn commissions from qualifying purchases

Three questions are about elk habitat; more specifically these questions are about access to elk habitat on public land. No point in getting all excited about land you can’t hunt or doesn’t have elk.

Three questions are about harvest statistics that will be discussed in How to Choose an Elk Unit for a DIY Public Land Hunt (Part III).

Learn the State’s Elk Hunting Rules, Regulations and Lingo

We need to learn the rules before we can choose a hunting unit. And many of the rules include words you might not have seen before if you haven’t hunted elk in the west. Those words are special words used by each state to define and describe their hunting rules and regulations.

States that are close to each other with the same types of game animals seem to use similar words (lingo). But if you are used to hunting white-tailed deer in the South or the Mid-west, the rules, regulations and the lingo of elk hunting in the inter-mountain west will not be familiar.

Learning about the hunting rules and regulations is totally your responsibility. It seems to me that each state makes that as difficult as possible, but there are no alternatives. Each state makes their own rules and we decide to play or not. We can hope, but should not be surprised that our government bureaucracies aren’t more “user friendly”. I try to make it easier to find all the information you need for seven of the western elk hunting states in the DIY Elk Hunting Guide.

The following examples show the variety of rules you need to know and some of the new lingo you need to understand.

Hunt Units, Hunt Areas, Game Management Units or Hunt Districts

Hunt units may also be called Game Management Units (GMUs), hunt areas or districts. You will also see terms like Elk Zones and Data Analysis Units (DAUs).

In some states units are numbered. In other states, they have names. You might think that the numbered units would always be found close together on a map, but you would wrong.  Units 15 in Colorado or Wyoming means nothing without the maps, but the “Book Cliffs” or “Upper Deschutes” give clues to where the hunt units are in Utah and Oregon if you know something about the states.

Montana uses both names and numbers, but they are not always found together, so you may need to know both. Idaho uses unit numbers, but they are grouped into named Elk Zones, so you may not know where unit 15 is, but you would have a clue if you knew it was in the “Elk City” Elk Zone.

But finally identifying a unit on the map is only the start. If you want to buy an Over-the-counter (OTC) tag, you can’t hunt in limited entry units. If you want a chance at a mature bull, you don’t need to be looking at units that only allow the take of spikes or cow elk. You also need to know if the tag allows you to hunt in several units or only in one unit.

Hunting Licenses, Elk Licenses, Elk Permits and Elk Tags

To start the application process or to buy a tag, most states now require a hunting license, then you buy or apply for an elk license, permit or tag. I may loosely interchange the words license, permit or tag, but each state has their specific usage of those words. Arizona even has something called an “Over-the Counter Non-permit tag”. Go figure.

Limited Entry, Limited Licenses, General Seasons, Controlled Hunts and Over-the-Counter Licenses

You may apply for Limited Entry Tags, Limited Tags or Controlled Hunts or buy General Elk Tags, called Over-the-Counter (OTC) tags in some states. You may be able to buy a “Left-over” tag and you may or may not also need a habitat stamp or a permit to hunt on state lands.

Bull Elk, Spike Bull, True Spike, Brow-tined Bull Elk and Antlerless Elk

In most cases, you will be hunting bull elk, antlerless elk or both (any elk or either sex). So be sure that you know what the legal definition of “Spike Bull”, “True Spike Bull”, “Antlered Bull” , “Three-point Minimum”, the “Four-Point Rule”, or a “Brow-tined Bull” elk depending upon which state you hunt and which tag you get.

“Antlerless elk” should be self explanatory, but the legal definition changes from state to state. Idaho allows elk with antlers less than 6 inches and in Utah and Colorado it’s less than 5 inches. In Wyoming, antlerless means “no antler growth plainly protruding from the skull”.

If you hunt the General Elk season in Utah, you will have to choose “Spike Only” units or “Any Bull” elk units and after you choose, you can hunt in any and all of that type of unit. In Colorado, you need to know that the OTC elk rifle hunts are during the 2nd and 3rd rifle seasons. You will have to choose one of those seasons and except for a few exceptions, you need to know you can only hunt in only one unit.

Non-Resident General Tags

In Wyoming and Montana, all non-residents have to apply for General tags. In Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Washington, non-residents can buy elk tags over the counter. Some tags are unlimited, but others are limited, so it’s first come, first serve.

Miscellaneous Elk Hunting Lingo

In Wyoming your first elk tag will be a general or limited quota full price elk license. Then you can apply for additional full priced or reduced priced antlerless elk tags, so you need to know what those tags are. The full priced tags are called Type 4 and 5 licenses and the reduced priced tags are called Type 6 and 7 licenses. You will also need to remember or look up these numbers if you want to make sense of the harvest results. So remember that in Wyoming, Archery tags are called Type 9 full price elk licenses.

In Idaho, Hunters can select one zone to hunt then choose either an “A tag” or a “B tag” for that zone. In general, “A” tags provide opportunities for muzzleloader and
archery hunters and “B” tags are for centerfire rifle or Any Legal Weapon (ALW) hunters. But you need to look at all options for each zone because some “A” tags are for ALW hunts and some “B” tags are for muzzleloader or archery hunts.

In Montana, you may be able to hunt cow elk during the special “shoulder seasons” with a general season elk license, antlerless elk permit or an elk B license, but you need to know which units are included and what those seasons are.

You may also be interested in hunting on a State Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) or on private Cooperative Wildlife Management Units (CWMUs), in Block Management Areas (BMA) or on Ranching for Wildlife (RFW) locations.

You should be totally confused by now, so that should be enough examples of the complexity of the rules and the new lingo you need to learn. So download the state guide books, hunting guides, proclamations or whatever they call them and “get to studying”.

Do Try This at Home

I have an exercise as an example of how difficult it is to find the information you will need at the state wildlife agency websites .

Let’s assume you just started your research for a DIY elk hunt in Colorado. You don’t know much about the area, but you spent a few days in the White River National Forest years ago and have always wanted to return and hunt there. Or you have a relative or friend that doesn’t hunt, but lives nearby and hikes and camps in the National Forest.

Those are good starting points. So how do we find all the information we need so we are ready to hunt there?

A Google search will show you The White River National Forest Website, but they tell you to contact Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) for more information about hunting. Neither the Forest Service or CPW tell you which hunting units are in which National Forest. You have to make that connection yourself.

Many hunting forum sites will also pop up in the search, but most folks are asking the same question everyone asks and it’s hard to find any good information about the actual hunt units.

At the CPW website, you should be able to quickly find and download the the newest Big Game Hunting Brochure, but the unit maps in the brochure are not detailed enough to show any of the national forests or other state or federal lands. With a little effort, you will finally find a version of the unit map to download that does show more detail.

Need to Upgrade Your Hunting Gear?

Leupold RX-1400i TBR/W Rangefinder Red TOLED Display, Mossy Oak

Check out the Leupold Range Finder at Amazon.

If you had my DIY Elk hunting guide, you could quickly find all the important information at the CPW (and other) websites. Plus, Table 8 (National Forests and Hunt Units in Colorado) in the hunting guide will tell you that White River National Forest is 2,286,249 acres and includes hunt units 24, 33 and 34.

My hunting guide also links to photographs of every National Forest in the seven Western States that I discuss in the hunting guide. The purpose of the photos are to show different habitats and the terrain. And every time I take another photograph or see one online that I like, I add it, link to it or replace an existing photograph that’s not as good. I maintain the links and my personal photographs on special web pages that are advertised only through the book.

I also cover the questions in the hunting guide about where to find the public elk habitat. And include information about elk habitat in 12 Forested Eco-regions and five Desert Eco-regions and specific habitats found in the seven western states.

In addition to photos for each National Forest, I include links to photos of habitats for both Rocky Mountain Elk and for Roosevelt Elk and to different mountain ranges that serve as examples for the various Eco-regions.

I particularly like to use photographs of elk in specific habitats (like my photo at the top of the page) and also include photos of elk sign, such as wallows, rubs, scat and places where they strip bark off the aspen. And I add more photos on a regular basis.

I posted similar information about the amount of public land here, but the hunting guide focuses on elk habitat on public land that is open to hunting. And I also include some of this information in other posts about hunting in Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming as well as harvest data from the seven Western States (example; 2015 harvest data).

The next post will discuss how to use elk harvest data to help choose a hunt unit.

Need to Upgrade your Field Dressing Kit?


  1. Mica Bodenheimer says

    Ok, so you are for sure making available a dizzying array of very useful info, for which I am grateful. So, for the purposes of beginning to make sense of it all lol , in which state do you think it is “least” complicated to get the brass tacks sorted for a DIY Ellk hunt on public land? I ask because this is clearly a complicated endeavor to figure for a east coast white tail hunter that hasn’t laid eyes on the land or processes, or know a hunter of the areas. I’m thinking this is a year long process of research and prep, so no fast track assumptions here.

    • Yes, lots to learn.

      That’s why I wrote the DIY Elk Hunting Guide. I try to provide answers to questions you don’t know to ask yet.

      If you want to hunt with Limited Entry (draw) tags, most of the best units in all western states with elk are difficult…
      Some units can be drawn with no points, but you need to do a lot of research.

      I try to concentrate on OTC or general season hunts so I can hunt every year.

      If you plan to hunt with OTC or General Season Tags, there are still five states (Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Washington) that still allow non-resident hunters to hunt elk without winning the lottery. Oregon and Washington have limited opportunities compared to Colorado, Utah an Idaho.

      First you need to pick a state. I try to give you the info to make that choice. To start, what types of habitats would you prefer to hunt?

Comments, Opinions, Questions?