Round 1: Palouse Elk Zone vs. McCall Elk Zone

This is the third installment on a series of posts comparing Idaho's any-weapon, antlered, general season elk hunts. For an intro to this series, go here.

For the first post in this series, read Dworshak Elk Zone vs. Bear River Elk Zone.

For the second post in this series, read Snake River Elk Zone vs. Palisades Elk Zone.

Here we go comparing the Palouse Elk Zone to the McCall Elk Zone. First up, the Palouse.

The Hunt

There's just a plethora of hunts available in the Palouse Zone, and that should speak something to the elk population here.  But more on that later.  In the middle of early and late season anterless elk hunts sits the antlered, any-weapon, general season hunt, which is all that we're interested with in these articles.  That hunt is on the Palouse Zone B-tag, and runs from October 10 - October 24.  As an added bonus, any elk may be harvested with this tag from October 15 - 17, but only on private lands, excluding corporate timber lands.  So it is a good long 2 week season, with an opportunity to fill your tag with a cow, if you haven't harvested a bull within the first several days of the season.

The Palouse Zone consists of Units 8, 8A, and 11A.  From the map you can see that the Washington border is the Zone boundary on the west, but then drops down with HWY 95 down to Grangeville.  From Grangeville, the boundary heads north along HWY 12 up to Elk River, with the Dworshak Zone to the east.  North of Elk River, the boundary gets a little funky as it jogs back west toward the Idaho-Washington state line.  Essentially, the north boundary line follows watersheds, so a good map is necessary.

Terrain/Land Ownership

Units 8 and 8A are generally known as the Palouse Region in Idaho.  Famous for the high, rolling hills, the Palouse is mostly dry land agriculture.  The north and east portion of Unit 8A gets into National Forest land, and a Clearwater National Forest map is handy.  Unit 11A consists mostly of the agricultural ground in the Camas Prairie, known by locals as "the prairie." The hills aren't as rolling here, but like the Palouse, the fields are spotted with small, scattered pine and fir forests.  The Palouse Zone consists of 1,486,933 acres, or 2.323 square miles.

The Clearwater River runs from east to west, and essentially divides the Zone in two.  The river then turns south at the town of Orofino, following HWY 12 and the east boundary of the Zone.  Think of Units 8 and 8A being the north half, and 11A being the south half.  The Palouse agricultural prairie sits at around 2500 - 3500 ft. in elevation, and deep canyons and gorges break down into the Clearwater River.  The Camas Prairie does essentially the same.

This Zone is 80% private land, 4% Indian Reservation, 9% Forest Service, and the State of Idaho owns 5%.  Some of the 80% private land belongs to corporate timber companies, which are generally okay to hunt on.  But 77% of the land is dry land agriculture, with 22% being forest (timber company land & forest service land).

All in all, the Zone is excellent elk habitat.  The dry land agricultural areas are often bordered by small, isolated forests, or are adjacent to canyons that consist of timber and brush, or sit against forest service land.  Lewis & Clark did not find a large elk herd in this area because at that time, this area was largely forest.  By the early part of the 20th Century, wildfires had turned those forests into large areas of grassy elk paradise.  The elk population grew steadily through the century until the 1970's.  Agricultural improvements and elk began fighting for the same ground, and that battle continues today, with depradation complaints and elk populations both on the rise.

The terrain itself is fairly tame, except for the deep gorges that carry down into the Clearwater River, where it doesn't take long to descend 2,000 to 3,000 ft. in elevation.  While the Palouse Region is quite hilly, it gives way to typical forested foothills and mountains to the east.  The Camas Prairie is flatter by comparison, except for breaks near the river.

Herd Health/Stats

The elk population here is very stable, and growing despite efforts to curb it.  The general season A-tag includes an any-weapon antlerless only hunt near cultivated fields ouside National Forest boundaries, and runs from August 1 - September 15.  There is also a late season extra anterless controlled hunt in January.  These liberal hunts are in response to depradation problems.  The farmers do suffer from elk depredation.  Elk love lentils. 

The objective elk population for the Zone is as follows: 1,325 cows, and 275 bulls (of which IF&G wants 180 mature bulls).  IF&G wants this to remain a sizeable herd, but are doing what they can to keep depredeation complaints at a minimum.

Objectives are being met for the most part.  The most recent survey, taken in 2009, showed that the Zone has 2,153 cows, and 411 bulls (of which, 151 were mature bulls).  It should be noted that most of the elk are in the upper half of the Zone in the Palouse.  Only 157 elk were counted in Unit 11A, of which 45 were bulls, including 32 mature bulls.  While Unit 11A may have a good bull to cow ratio, there is considerably less elk per square mile.  Further, Unit 11A is almost entirely private, and where it is not, it is likely Indian Reservation ground.  So take that info for what it's worth.

Overall, here's some stats, with a little tinkering on my part where full information was not available.  These are conservative numbers:

Elk/square mile: 1.10
Hunters/square mile: 0.60
Bulls/square mile: 0.18
Average hunter days: 5.11
Bull Harvest Percentage: 21%
Percent Spikes Harvested: 32%
Percent 6+ points Harvested: 17%

Notes:  Some guesswork had to be done in regard to the number of hunters going after bulls only in the Palouse Zone.  I used IF&G numbers for 2010 to try to get reasonably close estimates of how many people were hunting with the A-tag vs. the B-tag.  I believe that the bull harvest percentage could even possibly be higher, but I tried to stay on the conservative side.

The McCall Zone

The Hunt

The general season, antlered-only, any-weapon hunt is with the B-tag for this Zone, and ran from October 15, 2011 - November 3, 2011.  The hunt was preceded by a spike-only hunt that ran from October 5 - Octover 14, by a short-range weapon only, anterless hunt in Units 23 & 24 outside of Forest Service land, from August 15 - September 30, and finally by an archery hunt from August 30 - September 30.


The McCall Zone consists of Units 19A, 23, 24, and 25.  The boundary lines for these units are detailed on the IF&G website.  This west-central Zone in Idaho has the town of McCall as its centerpiece, and it is important to note the circle in this map.  This circle within Unit 24 that stretches from McCall down south past the town of Cascade is short range weapons only.  The Zone consists of 1,909,599 acres, or 2,983 square miles.

Terrain/Land Ownership

This is some of Idaho's typical mountainous back country.  74% of the McCall Zone is the Payette National Forest.  Steep mountains, where the pines grow thick on the north sides, and the south sides are bare.  18% of this Zone is private property, but it is mostly contained to the Little Salmon River and Payette River valley bottoms.  89% of the Zone is considered forested.  Lots of public land here to hunt on, and lots of access points.

McCall sits at around 5,000 ft. in elevation, and the peaks in this Zone generally top out somewhere near 8,000 ft.  This is rugged Central Idaho at some of its best - one canyon after another, and many of them look the same.  A lot of tough walking and glassing opportunities here.  Bring a map and a compass.  I've heard stories of guys hunting in this Zone that trailed elk up and over a few ridges, and were easily lost.  It's beautiful country, but most of it looks the same.

This Zone can suit a variety of hunter preferences.  While heavily wooded in some areas, there are other areas that quite open.  It is a good Zone for the spot and stalk types.  Just remember that you'll be stalking in some rough terrain, or at least steep terrain, at times.

Herd Health/Stats

This was once an elk haven, but the gold rush of the 19th Century almost completely eliminated the herd.  Elk meat was a staple in the mining camps, until the elk were gone.  Elk were reintroduced to the area from places like Yellowstone in the 1930's, and again elk found the habitat to be suitable.  Elk numbers grew fast, and liberal hunting took place until 1976, when the tag for the Zone went from being "any elk" to "antlered only."  The elk has restabilized since then, and has remained steady.

Other habitat features: extensive cattle and domestic sheep graze here, particularly on the west side of the Zone.  Grazing at the river valley bottoms are a favorite pastime for the elk, and of course this is on private property.  And the prescribed burns by the Forest Service, particularly on the eastern side of the Zone provide excellent habitat for the elk.  The elk primarily winter in the forests.  Basically, this is good habitat for the elk in general, and there is nothing holding them back, except for...

Wolves.  I haven't talked too much about predators in this series to this point.  Wolves across the state are doing some damage.  Some people say the damage is extremely high, and environmentalists say it is next to nil.  The truth is somewhere in the middle.  However, it does appear to be noteworthy that I believe wolves are to blame for a low cow to calf ratio in this Zone.  IF&G may not say specifically so, but they will acknowledge that there is an established wolf population here.  Still, as the numbers will show, there are plenty of elk in this Zone.  It should not be written off as a hunting opportunity.  In fact, it may be even more so because some have written it off.

Elk population objectives are this: 2,450 - 3,700 cows, 525 - 800 bulls, of which IF&G would like to see 300 - 450 mature bulls.  The 2010 survey counted 3,292 cows, 616 bulls, of which 474 were mature bulls.  Mature bulls is the only category above objective.  All others are within objective.  For some reason, no data is available for Unit 24, so these numbers are just for the other Units in this Zone.

Now, the stats:

Elk/square mile: 1.31
Hunters/square mile: 0.81
Bulls/square mile: 0.21
Average hunter days: 7.35
Bull Harvest Percentage: 13%
Percent Spikes Harvested: 28%
Percent 6+ points Harvested: 30%

Notes: 2009 data was used to estimate hunter numbers for 2010.  Harvest numbers were taken from 2010 statistics.  A total of 92 six points, or better, were harvested.  Only 88 spikes were harvested.


The Palouse Zone can be a challenge for many hunters because so much of it is private land.  Even when private land is accessed, you're often competing with other hunters in areas were the elk are at.  There are plenty of elk in the forested areas of the Palouse Zone, and access is easy to get to.  But again, you'll run into other hunters, as forest land is limited.  Just as with almost any other Zone, you can get away from the hunters if you work harder, and your chances of getting an elk are good.  But in this Zone, it really pays off to know landowners.  Some hunting success happens south of the Clearwater River, but most of the elk are north of it.  Some of the forested land is very similar to the Dworshak Zone.

The McCall Zone, on the other hand, is mostly public ground.  It is a heavily hunted unit, as it is a stone's throw from the Boise metropolis.  Many Treasure Valley folks make this Zone their happy hunting grounds.  Forest Service roads can take you many places here, but nothing beats getting away from other hunters than parking, and getting out to walk over ridges.  Despite the number of other hunters, there's lots of elk here, and the mature bull ratios are high, which is attractive.

The Winner

The McCall Zone.  In the end, the public land vs. private land issue takes the most consideration.  The McCall Zone just has so much land to offer the general season hunter.  Elk numbers appear to be good now, but that could change in the future due to wolves and hunting pressure, among other factors.  But if I had to choose today where I would hunt tomorrow, I would take a week off of work, and head to the McCall Zone.

~ J. Bunch

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