Utah wildlife agency proposes changes to elk hunting as popularity soars

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources unveiled a possible new elk management plan Tuesday, which will go through a public process before it takes effect in 2023.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources unveiled a possible new elk management plan Tuesday, which will go through a public process before it takes effect in 2023. (Utah Division of Wildlife Resources)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah wildlife officials are proposing a new plan to manage elk populations as their agency's current plan expires and the demand to hunt the species grows to all-time highs.

Dax Mangus, the big game coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, says that the proposal seeks to address growing concerns about the ability to obtain an elk hunting permit and overcrowding during the hunting season.

"We evaluated a lot of different options, trade-offs, and ultimately, in the end, have drafted some really innovative new strategies to help with elk management moving forward," Mangus said in a video about the plan posted on Youtube on Tuesday.

The plan proposes a handful of changes, including:

  • Six additional general-season any bull elk hunting units in the Nine Mile, Paunsaugunt, West Desert, Central Mountains, Book Cliffs and Box Elder areas across the state, while also adding a new general-season spike hunt in the Diamond Mountain unit in northeast Utah.
  • Dividing the current 13-day general season any bull elk hunt with any legal weapon into two separate seven-day hunts.
  • Issuing 15,000 general-season permits for the early season any-legal-weapon any bull elk hunt and having no cap on permit numbers for the late season any-legal-weapon any bull elk hunt. Multi-season any bull elk permits would be capped at 7,500 permits.
  • Continuing to issue 15,000 spike bull permits every year with 4,500 available as multi-season permits.
  • Creating an unlimited youth general-season elk permit that is valid during all general seasons on both any bull and spike units.
  • Restructuring the harvest objectives for traditional limited-entry units to include three age objectives: 6 ½ to 7 years old, 6 to 6 ½ years old and 5 ½ to 6 years old.
  • Adding the mid-season any legal weapon hunt on most of the traditional limited-entry elk units, and adjusting the weapon splits for traditional limited-entry hunts to place more any-legal-weapon hunts in the mid-season hunt.

DWR maintains a plan to manage elk herds — among all sorts of wildlife — to outline goals in elk populations and habitat. It's drawn up through the help of state and federal agencies, conservation groups, academic experts, private landowners and hunters. The document helps the agency understand what is needed to keep herds healthy and productive within the state's ecosystem.

The division approved its current elk management plan in 2015 and altered it two years ago; however, it's set to expire at the end of the year.

The new plan, if approved, would take effect in 2023 and cover the next 10 years, though there would be a review of the plan in 2027 in case changes are needed along the way, Mangus explained. A 20-member committee of various experts devised the proposed plan. A public survey of nearly 3,000 elk hunters in Utah was also used to help come up with new ideas.

Overall, the demand to hunt elk is the most drastic change since the last plan was compiled.

Mangus points out that limited-entry bull elk draws were already a difficult permit for Utahns to acquire, which is a trend that he expects will continue. There were 75,925 applicants for 3,117 limited-entry bull elk permits this year, more than 20,000 additional applications than in 2014 when there were 2,868 permits, according to the division. The odds that a state resident wins an entry dropped from one in 16 to about one in 20 probability.

But general season elk permits are a bigger concern. Earlier this year, the division's 17,500 general-season any bull permits sold out in five hours, while its 15,000 general-season spike bull elk permits sold out in nine hours after going on sale. It took 77 days and 84 days, respectively, for either permit to sell out in 2014.

"This demand really enforces a theme that we continue to see in Utah: the demand to get into the outdoors (and) to enjoy our wildlife resources continues to grow, and there are a lot of folks who feel like they're losing this family hunt, this idea of a hunt that someone can plan on every year," Mangus said. "It gets harder and harder to draw deer permits based on the way we're managing deer hunting right now in the state with some of the challenges we're faced with due to drought. ... And for a lot of folks, the general season elk hunts have become the family hunt."

The demand, which really emerged in 2020, is also why state wildlife officials tried and failed to amend the elk hunting permit process last year. It's also an issue that doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon, which is why the committee was tasked with addressing a balance of "opportunity and quality" in a new management plan, he explained.

The feedback from the public survey somewhat mirrored the feedback from the failed permit process change. Mangus said that while there were some components of Utah's elk hunts that hunters enjoyed, those surveyed were "split" on most key issues, wanting more access but also limiting crowding to maintain the quality of hunting. He believes the plan offers a "creative" solution to the challenge, while also addressing concerns with drought, aging elk populations and other issues.

"We believe these proposed changes will help reach those goals," he added, in a statement. "The recommended changes are all related and provide synergy to the overall management plan, with the general-season hunt changes providing additional opportunities and the limited-entry changes helping maintain the quality of the hunt."

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources announced Tuesday that it is also proposing the first hunting dates under the proposed new plan. If approved, the elk hunting season would begin with the general-season archery spike bull and any bull hunts on Aug. 19, 2023. The last elk hunt to begin would be on Dec. 2, which is the start of the limited-entry late-season archery hunt.

Utahns have through Nov. 22 to provide comments on the proposals through the division's website. The Utah Wildlife Board will meet at the Eccles Wildlife Education Center on Dec. 1 to vote on whether to approve the proposed plan and 2023 hunting dates.

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.


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