Wyoming Hunters Kill Record 29,000 Elk, But Not Enough To Trim Massive Herds

Hunters killed roughly 29,000 elk in Wyoming, for a record-setting 2023-2024 hunting season. Although that's a huge amount of elk, it only scratches the surface of what's needed to cull the state’s ballooning herds.

Mark Heinz

March 27, 20245 min read

A herd of Wyoming elk take a break at the foot of the Grand Tetons.
A herd of Wyoming elk take a break at the foot of the Grand Tetons. (sbthegreenman via adobestock.com)

Elk hunters had a “record-setting” 2023-2024 hunting season, bagging roughly 29,000 of the critters across Wyoming, but that could still be only scratching the surface of culling the state’s ballooning herds.

The elk harvest was up about 5% from the previous hunting season and part of a decade-long upward trend in the number of elk killed by hunters, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Still Too Many Elk?

However, elk numbers remain above Game and Fish objectives in many herds across the state.

In eastern Wyoming, ranchers complaining about being overrun by elk is part of what prompted Game and Fish to propose unlimited Type 8 cow/calf elk tags for the 2024-2025 hunting seasons in some hunt areas.

And in western Wyoming, there’s growing concern over what might happen as game managers try to wean elk off winter feeding grounds.

The overall estimated elk population in Wyoming is about 109,000, and despite a banner season for hunters, the herds could keep growing.

Pleasantly Surprised

Northeast Wyoming resident Owen Miller told Cowboy State Daily that after the devastating winter of 2022-23 killed untold numbers of wildlife, he was concerned that the subsequent elk hunting season would be a bust. So he was pleased to still see plenty of elk.

“I hunted about 21 days, including two weeks of archery, and got into elk every day. I had expected hunting to be tougher than previous years, because I was expecting lower numbers, but was pleasantly surprised by the amount of elk I ran into,” he said.

Gotta Bag More Cow Elk

They key to permanently pulling elk herd numbers down could be hunters shooting more cow and calf elk, just to get steaks in the freezer.

Avid hunter Zach Key of La Barge, who also served on the state’s elk feed ground task force, told Cowboy State Daily that when elk start getting shot at, they might take shelter on private property, which can complicate things.

The Type 8 cow/calf tags in eastern Wyoming are a step in the right direction. But the program will work only if hunters can get reasonable access to hunt areas that are dominated by private property.

“Who is going to pay a $1,500 trespass fee to go shoot a cow elk?” he said.

Meanwhile, if the goal is to scale back on feeding grounds in western Wyoming, it could cause similar problems for ranchers there, Key said, as growing numbers of hungry elk seek alternatives.

“If they start reducing the feeding grounds, they are going to start having elk problems,” he said. “They are going to start having issues with elk going on ranches, going after haystacks and everything else.”

And for their part, hunters might have to shift their focus away from who can shoot the biggest bull, Key added. Having a huge antler rack to hang on the wall can be grand, but taking more female elk is the only way to really knock back herd numbers.

“I think over the past 20 years or so, the focus on trophy hunting has become hyper-focused,” he said.

Hunters killed more cow elk during the 2023-2024 hunting seasons than they have in a long while, according to Game and Fish.

“The harvest of cow elk topped 13,000 for the first time in a decade,” according to the agency.

Give Mule Deer A Break

The Wyoming Range Mule Deer herd, in Key’s home territory, was one of the hardest-hit by winterkill. The latest herd counts indicate that as many as two-thirds of those deer died during the 2022-2023 winter, leaving about 11,000 survivors.

So, it could help if hunters shift their focus from deer to cow elk, Key said.

Miller said some hunters might have done that this past season.

“Possibly because of lower deer numbers people targeted elk instead to fill the freezer? I know that during rifle season I encountered more hunters than usual, even considering it being a general unit,” he said. “With more hunters targeting elk it would make sense, in my opinion, that the (elk) harvest numbers were higher.”

What’s To Be Done?

Game and Fish has stated that it will try to expand its “Access Yes” and similar programs to get hunters more access to private property as part of the unlimited Type 8 elk tag proposal. But getting permission from landowners will still be primarily up to hunters.

Key said the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission recently approved his proposal to review and possibly revise the elk feeding ground program every five years, which should help.

He said Wyoming should also consider issuing “bull-cow combo” tags for elk, as Kansas does for whitetail deer with “buck-doe combo tags.”

If a hunter draws a bull tag, a cow tag would be issued along with it, Key said.

“That way, if I’m out archery hunting for a big bull, but I don’t get anything, I can still take a cow elk without having to burn off my bull tag,” he said.

Mark Heinz can be reached at mark@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter