Round 1: Dworshak Elk Zone vs. Bear River Elk Zone

This is the first installment of a series of posts comparing the best Idaho has to offer for general season, rifle, antlered elk tags. For more explanation on the general elk season comparisons, read the intro here.

First, let's start off with the Dworshak Zone in North Idaho.  

The Hunt
In 2011, the Dworshak Zone had an antlered, any-weapon hunt (B-Tag) that ran from Oct. 10 - Nov. 3 (25 days).  Archery hunts preceded the any-weapon hunt from August 30 - September 30.  Only 2,380 B-Tags were available for purchase, first come, first served.  The tags were available to non-residents starting on Dec. 1, 2010, and to residents on July 10, 2011.


From Kamiah up to Orofino, and then up to Elk River, the Dworshak Zone spans east until it butts up to the Lolo Zone.  Dworshak Reservoir sits in the middle of the zone.  Or, maybe we should call it a rain forest.  This part of the state gets plenty of precipitation, both in rain and snow.  Typical of most of the North Idaho forests, there is a lot of undergrowth in the zone, and that's especially important since we'll be comparing it to a much different Southeast Idaho elk zone - Bear River.  The Dworshak Zone consists of only one Game Management Area - Unit 10A.

Terrain/Land Ownership

As for terrain, much of it is wooded.  48% is private ground, much of which is private timber company land.  The timber companies are pretty good about allowing hunters.  Some require a permission slip; others don't.  As long as you're not driving behind closed gates and cutting down good timber, you're usually okay to go.  23% of the land belongs to the State of Idaho, 25% to the Forest Service & BLM, and about 4% to the Corp of Engineers (land along Dworshak Reservoir) and Tribal Lands.  All of that is to say that this is mostly a big forest, scattered with typical woodland meadows, and plenty of clear cuts.  The entire zone encompasses 995,490 acres, or 1,555 square miles.

The logging activity can make elk visibility poor in the short term, but long term, the clear cuts provide excellent elk habitat.  A lot of folks hunt this zone because of the clear cuts.  Without the logging activity, hunting here would be a uniform deep timber wilderness hunt.  Access to Forest Service, state lands, and commercial timber property is easy.

The terrain gets pretty steep and mountainous in the Elk River area, and north of Dworshak Reservoir.  The southern portion of the zone isn't as steep-crazy, but there's still hills to climb and drainages to cross.  If you like getting your shins wet from ferns as you climb mountains, and finding yourself playing twister through vast deadfalls of trees, you might consider this zone.

But it's not all hard work.  People harvest plenty of elk out of this zone, and we also know that most of the "plenty" are pretty plenty lazy hunters.  Perhaps I've described this zone as pretty hard to maneuver in.  Well, don't kid yourself.  You know the big bulls will be in the hardest places to get to - the thick underbrush that's taller than you combined with thick timber and plenty of deadfalls.  Some prefer to hunt from the boat in Dworshak Reservoir.  Fish during the midday hours, and spot for elk.  Then wake up the next morning and stalk what you glassed.  Sounds like a great time to me.  There's lots of places to camp along the shore that are only accessible by boat, so this method can get you away from other people pretty effectively.  Just make sure that as you make plans to do this, you check the water levels of the reservoir.  In the fall, the water is usually down, making some destination points pretty inaccessible.  

Herd Health/Stats

The latest hard numbers are from the 2007 IF&G survey that counted 3,236 cows.  Objective numbers for the cows sits at 2,900 - 4,300.  All good there.  Bulls, on the other hand, are down.  The survey said there were 477, which is below the objective 600 - 900.  IF&G did their latest elk count in the Dworshak Zone in February of 2011.  I don't have the exact numbers now, but word is that cows are increasing, calves are holding steady, and bull numbers continue to drop.

Based on the numbers available at this time, here are the stats for 2010.
Elk per square mile: 2.39
Hunters per square mile: 1.4
Bulls per square mile: 0.31
Average hunter days: 8.12
Bull harvest percentage: 20%
Spikes harvested percentage: 42%
6+ points harvested percentage: 15%

Now, let's turn our attention to the Bear River Zone.

The Hunt

In 2011, the any-weapon, antlered-only hunt was sold as a B-Tag, and ran from Oct. 15 - Oct. 24 (10 days).  It was preceded by an archery elk hunt from Aug. 30 - Sep. 30.  There was no capped limit of tags for the Bear River Zone in 2011.


The Bear River Zone consists of three Game Management Areas - Unit 75, Unit 77, and Unit 78.  From Soda Springs at the top, the zone border on the east angles southeast through the Nounan Valley, and then south down to Montpelier.  Then it heads west over to Ovid, and then shoots straight down to the Utah line.  The west border, from Soda Springs, heads south to the small town of Grace, then lolly-gags over to Preston, and then south to Utah.

Terrain/Land Ownership

Think of this zone as two valleys that run north and south, with a mountain range in between.  That mountain range is the northern end of the Wasatch Range that extends down into Utah.  The valleys sit between 5,000 and 6,000 ft. in elevation, and the mountains climb above 8,000 ft, with some of the peaks topping 9,000 ft.  The valleys are pretty much private wheat and barley fields, and some range land.  The foothills consist of sagebrush with aspen groves and mountain shrubs.  Further on up, firs start to cover the north facing slopes, and then it grades up to high alpine trees and meadows.

In many ways, the Bear River Zone is easier to maneuver in comparison to the Dworshak Zone, simply because you can choose to hunt open areas, which are much more readily available.  Still, as you get in the dark timber, the going is rough - just like anywhere else.  This is a typical high altitude, arid, Rocky Mountain elk hunting zone.

Basically, 48% of the land here is private, and 52% is public.  The private ground is in the valleys, the public ground is mostly forest service in the mountains.  Access to the public ground is easy.  There are tons of roads in the Bear River Zone, which in many peoples' minds is one of the disadvantages of this zone.  Some have said that you basically can't get any further than 2 miles from a road in one direction or the other.  While that's not quite true, the point is taken that this is a road-hunter's paradise.  The zone consists of 567,652 acres, or 887 square miles, and there are plenty of roads to wind through it.

Herd Health/Stats

The latest IF&G survey occurred in 2010.  606 cows were counted, exceeding the objective amount of 400 - 600.  98 bulls were counted, which places that number right in the middle of the objective 80 - 120.  The elk like to winter in the valleys, and depradation tags and feeding programs are typically utilized on a small scale.  Most of the elk in the zone are fairly well spread out in smaller herds.  The elk population has been stable recently.

The stats here aren't entirely scientific.  Because there are three units in this zone, some guesswork had to be done in regard to the number of hunters and days spent in the field for the antlered-only tag.  If you're interested in the specifics of how I came up with my numbers, I'll gladly explain.  But for now, here we go.

Elk per square mile: 0.79
Hunters per square mile: 1.47
Bulls per square mile: 0.11
Average hunter days: 4.4
Bull harvest percentage: 16%
Spikes harvested percentage: 20%
6+ points harvested percentage: 19%
Obviously, there are many other factors to consider, such as growing elk predation problems, and past years trending. At the same time, I think I've covered most of the bases. Here we go.

Dworshak has 3 times as many elk per square mile than does Bear River.  And the same ratio holds true for bulls per square mile.  While this seems like a no-brainer in favor of Dworshak, the terrain has to be considered.  The stats show that there is 1 bull for every 3 square miles in Dworshak, and 1 bull for every 10 square miles in Bear River.  But you can glass a lot of open land in Bear River.  In Dworshak, you're lucky to find a spot where you can see 100 yards of clearing in front of you.  I give the edge here to Dworshak, simply because the odds seem better.

Hunters per square mile is a wash between the two.  I think you're probably more likely to run into a hunter in the Bear River Zone than you are in the Dworshak Zone.  In Dworshak, it is much easier to get far away from any roads.  It's basically a big forest all the way until you get part way through Montana.  The edge here also goes to Dworshak.  If my concern is to get away from other hunters, I know I can do it here.

Harvest numbers also show that Dworshak does better than Bear River.  Dworshak has a very respectable 20% harvest rate for antlered elk, while Bear River checks in at 16%.  However, if you're looking for a bigger bull, Bear River has the edge.  42% of the bulls taken out of Dworshak in 2010 were spikes, and another 33% were raghorns of some sort.  Only 15% were 6 points or better.  However, in Bear River, only 20% were spikes, 61% were raghorns, and 19% were 6 points or better.  I think Bear River gets the edge here.  If I'm only 4% more likely to harvest something in Dworshak, I'll take my odds at getting something larger than a spike in Bear River.

The Winner

Dworshak.  But I had to give that a few moments of reflection before I decided.  If I was given the choice to hunt one or the other, I'd probably choose Bear River because I enjoy that terrain more, and it is a zone that presents unique challenges (such as finding places that hold elk that are as far away from roads as is possible).  However, if you told me that I was set up with a boat in Dworshak Reservoir, and could hunt and camp from it, that would be a hard offer to turn down.

In the end, you're more likely to harvest something (and that's what this is mostly about) in Dworshak.

~ J. Bunch

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