A “private land only” cow elk tag system has helped whittle down Colorado’s overpopulated elk herds and might work in Wyoming, said someone who has lived in both states.
“I’m not a big antler hunter. I don’t have a place at home to put up a big elk rack. I hunt for cow elk,” said Jim Eckersley, who lives in Windsor, Colorado.
Going hunting with one of those special late-season cow elk tags isn’t cheap; a guide is required, and fees can run from $500-$2,000. But Eckersley told Cowboy State Daily it’s worth it to him, because he gets full guide services and is doing his part to keep Colorado’s elk populations under control.
“The goal is to, on private property, to help the ranchers by thinning out the cow elk. You can’t reduce the population just by shooting bulls,” he said.
Different States, Similar Problems
Eckersley’s father worked for the Bureau of Reclamation, and he grew up in rural Wyoming near the famed “Miracle Mile” section of the North Platte River in Natrona County.
“When I cross the state line into Wyoming, I still feel like I’m home,” he said.
He’s watched with keen interest as Wyoming struggles with what ranchers say is a huge overabundance of elk in some parts of the state – particularly in Albany and Laramie counties, and elk herds such as the one in the Iron Mountain area.
Wyoming legislators and officials have kicked around a number of options. Most recently, a legislative a bill proposing unlimited “lethal take” tags for cow elk on private land might be in the works.
Parts of Colorado faced a similar situation, Eckersley said.
As cooler temperatures set in during late fall, abundant elk herds that spend their summers in the high country come piling down out of the mountains and into pastures around places such as Craig, Colorado, he said. And much of the best elk habitat there is on private ranchland.
“The private ranches get inundated with elk. It’s the same problem you have in Wyoming,” Eckersley said. “Ranchers get a bunch of cow elk coming in, and they’ll eat just as much as the cattle will.”
Colorado has Wyoming to thank for its massive elk herds.
By the early 20th Century, elk numbers in Colorado were plummeting. But 50 elk transplanted from Wyoming turned things around. Now the Centennial State has the world’s largest elk population, roughly 280,000 elk, including a herd that takes over the town of Estes Park during spring and fall migrations.
Huge Herds On Both Sides Of State Line
An overabundance of elk in parts of Wyoming has caused a quandary.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has in some areas tried lengthening hunting seasons and offering more hunting tags, particularly for cow elk. Because one bull elk can impregnate numerous cows during the rut, or mating season, killing cow elk is the only way to effectively trim the population.
But even in Colorado, most people looking to hire a guide and hunt on private ranchland are well-heeled hunters looking for trophy bulls, and are willing to shell out $7,500 or more for guided bull hunts, Eckersley said.
Similarly, in some of Wyoming’s hardest-hit areas, such as Elk Hunt Area 6, home of the Iron Mountain herd, most of the land is private. And while hunters have clamored for more access, ranchers have been reluctant to throw their gates wide for the general public.
Eckersley said he understands the dilemma.
“Some ranchers wouldn’t want to let anybody hunt on their land any other way (than with a guide),” he said. “They wouldn’t want a bunch of people traipsing around, just leaving gut piles laying everywhere and trash everywhere.”
So, Colorado found a way to “solve the problem without reinventing the wheel,” he said.
Years ago, Colorado Parks and Wildlife started offering late season cow elk tags – for about $85 each – that are good only for guided hunts on private land.
“It’s a win-win-win for the hunters, guides and ranchers,” he said.
Hunters get a good crack at cow elk and guide services at a reduced price, ranchers get cow elk killed and the guides can book more hunts than they otherwise would, he said.
He said the program worked well for him during a recent elk season. He shot a cow elk on private land near Craig on a hunt with ranch manager and guide Bronc Hellander. Average hunters might balk at the $2,000 price tag, but Eckersley said he got a lot for his money.
“He (Hellander) field dressed the elk for me, loaded it on his ATV and hauled it out, and then took it to a meat processing shop in Craig,” he said.
Given the amount of work that packing out and butchering a cow elk can be, particularly for an older hunter, it was worth it, he said.
What’s more, guides and ranch managers who go out with hunters make sure that gut piles and other carcass parts aren’t left behind, possibly drawing predators onto ranchland, Eckersley said.
Should Wyoming Give It A Shot?
A similar private land-only late season cow elk tag program might work for Wyoming, Eckersley said.
He likes having a freezer full of elk meat and would love more chances to hunt in his home state. So, if the Wyoming Game and Fish Department implemented a similar program, he’d be one of the first in line.
“If they offered these private land, guided hunt cow tags at a reasonable price for non-residents, I would love to buy a tag, or two, and come hunt in Wyoming,” he said.
Mark Heinz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.