Round 1: Snake River Elk Zone vs. Palisades Elk Zone

This is the second 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.

Snake River Elk Zone

The Hunt

The any-weapon, antlered, general season elk hunt for the Snake River Zone took place from August 1, 2011 - August 31, 2011. The antlered hunt for this zone is on the A-Tag, and is only good for Unit 63, so we'll just be looking at Unit 63 in this post. There is no capped limit of tags for this hunt. On Mud Lake WMA, only short range weapons are allowed.

This is an early season hunt, and an anterless elk hunt follows this one for Unit 63 that runs from September 1 - December 31. Basically, IF&G really wants you to get your elk in this zone, and plenty of hunts are available, especially anterless ones, but more on that later.


Unit 63's border within the Snake River Zone starts at Blackfoot, ID, travels north along I-15, all the way to Dubois. From Dubois, it follows HWY 22 west until it intersects with HWY 33. It then continues south and west until it hits HWY 20/26, just east of Butte City. Then it jogs back to the east and south on HWY 20/26 until HWY 20 breaks off. The border continues to follow HWY 26 back to Blackfoot and I-15.

Terrain/Land Ownership

An aerial view of Unit 63 will tell you a lot. If there's any trees in the unit, they are some experimental ones deep underground in the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). This is a dry, high Idaho desert. It is all pretty much sitting at 5,000 ft. in elevation, except for the occasional bare butte. Get on one of the buttes, and you can see for an eternity.

For the most part, this is horrible elk habitat. But once you throw in enough wildfires that replace sagebrush with native grasses, and you provide enough hay fields... well, enough said. Hay fields. And that is the key to this whole place for elk hunting.

The State of Idaho owns 8% of the land. BLM - 54%. Private - 36%. And the remaining little bit belongs to Dept. of Energy and other public landowners. Needless to say, there's plenty of public ground on it to hunt.

The terrain, besides not changing much in elevation, consists of 60% rangeland (desert), 29% irrigated agriculture, 8% Rock (lava), and about 3% of other stuff, including dry land agriculture. Unit 63 consists of 1,285,491 acres, or 2,009 square miles.

Herd Health/Stats

The herd is healthy. Too healthy for the farmers in the area. There are vast stretches of rangeland/desert, but I doubt many elk are prancing around in those parts. Crop depredation has been horrible here, and I suspect most of the elk stay within a day's walking distance of the irrigated fields of plenty. Wouldn't you? In fact, it is known that elk take refuge on INL ground during the day, and they invade the plush fields at night. "Night marauding S.O.B.'s!" is a common curse by farmers in reference to the elk of the area.

The conditions have been so good for the elk, that the population has been maintaining itself well above IF&G's objectives. Plenty of hunting opportunities, both for antlered and anterless elk have not done the trick. IF&G wants to see 25-35 cows in the whole Zone (which also includes Units 53, 63A, and 68A), and 5-10 bulls (including 1-5 mature bulls).

This Zone, which once used to be a big buffalo feeding ground, now holds 200 cows, and 100 bulls (50 of which are mature bulls), and many, if not most, are found in Unit 63.

Statistics are only available for Unit 63's hunts with the A-Tag. Which means when it comes to the stats, some guesswork has to be done as to how many hunters went after bulls, and how many went after cows. With the A-Tag, hunters can hunt for bulls in Unit 63 from 8/1 to 8/31, and then if they don't fill their tag, they can hunt for cows from 9/1 - 12/31. Some educated guesses had to come into play with some of these statistics (query me for further info), but here we go:

Elk per Square Mile: 0.15
Hunters per Square Mile: 0.29
Bulls per Square Mile: 0.05
Average Hunter Days: 6.4
Bull Harvest Percentage: 10%
Percent Spikes Harvested: 19%
Percent 6+ points Harvested: 30%


The elk/square mile is a little deceiving. As I said before, I think much of Unit 63 is not inhabited by elk. Could be wrong about that, but I don't think so. No, the elk here are close to irrigated agriculture, which means near the Mud Lake/Dubois area, and the hay, wheat, and barley fields north of I-15, stretching from Blackfoot onto Idaho Falls. Likewise, the hunters are probably more concentrated in those areas where the elk are.

30% of the bulls harvested were 6 points or better. Not bad, but on the whole, the 10% success rate for bulls in general should be considered along with that. No actual IF&G surveys are conducted here, so their numbers and objectives are gathered in other ways. But they do figure that about half the bulls are mature bulls. In conclusion, I would say that the chances of harvesting a mature bull are decent.

But the key is to be where the elk are. Ambushing them as they come out of the fields in the early morning is a popular and practical way of hunting the deserts. In most cases, BLM ground sits adjacent to the private ground where the elk are likely to be.

Now for the Palisades Zone

The Hunt

The Palisades Zone consists of Unit 64 & Unit 67. The B-Tag is the antlered hunt that ran from October 15 - October 24. It is preceded by an archery hunt from August 30 - September 30. The A-Tag is an anterless hunt that follows the antlered hunt from October 22 - November 15. There is no capped limit of tags for this Zone.


The Palisades Zone consists of the Snake River Range of mountains that jet out of Wyoming, north of the section of HWY 26 that runs from Ririe, through Swan Valley, and to Alpine, WY. The south border is the South Fork of the Snake River. The west side of the Zone extends down into the agricultural area around Rexburg and St. Anthony. The north border bumps up to Newdale, then plops on down through the mountains, so some watershed, range, and map knowledge is imperative.

The Teton Zone is on the north, and I've seen elk here right on the line of these two Zones, where it would have been easy to tag an elk in, just barely, the wrong Zone. Game Wardens won't understand, so you need to understand where you're at, and where the elk are at. Exactly. The north border gets easier once it intersects with HWY 31, which runs north-south, connecting the two towns of Swan Valley and Victor. From there, the border follows the highway to Victor, and then goes east along the highway from Victor to the Wyoming border. The east border is the Wyoming-Idaho state line. Geez, just look at the map. It's confusing to explain.

There is a total of 493,184 acres, or 770 square miles to hunt in this zone.

Terrain/Land Ownership

Most of the huntable area lies within the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. 51% of the ground belongs to the USFS. Private - 41%. State of Idaho - 4%. BLM - 2%. And the remaining belongs to other minor bureaus. There is plenty of public ground to hunt. But there are not a lot of open roads here. This is considered a "semi-backcountry" area.

Let me explain that a little bit. The area is rife with trails of one sort or another. Depending on the weather, you may run into mountain bikers, dog walkers, dirt bikes, atv's, snowmobiles, and who knows, maybe even skateboarders. Some trails are open to small motorized vehicles (atv's, dirtbikes), and others are open to only non-motorized modes of travel (horses, mountain bikes). Maps are available from the USFS that detail which trails are for what.

With that said, it is fairly easy to get away from the recreational crowds. This is some steep country to hunt. Most advise that if you try to hunt this Zone without horses, you're insane. I can vouch for that. I had to pack out my dad's 5 point a couple of years ago in this Zone - a 6.85 mile round trip - on my back. Wish I'd had a horse.

Anyway, once you get off of the trail system, where the recreational folks are at, you can get away from it all, and into elk. Actually, my dad's elk was shot from a horse trail, and a couple of mountain bikers pedaled on by in their spandex as he was gutting it out. So you don't even have to leave the trails to find elk.

Most of the private property will be on the outside edges of the Zone, and while in some cases it might be a plus to have permission to hunt somewhere, most of the elk will still be pretty high that time of the year, and in the forest.

Parts of the Zone are heavily timbered, and other areas consist of pockets of aspen, pockets of timber, and open sagebrush areas. And did I mention this is a steep area? You'll pull out of Swan Valley at around 5,000 ft. in elevation, make camp at 6,500 ft, hunt up to 8,000 ft., and then probably shoot your elk down in the canyon on the other side at 7,000 ft. Be in good shape, or bring horses.

Herd Health/Stats

The herd here is in good shape, but it hasn't always been that way. Up to the '70's, the herd was over-hunted. It has recovered, but since that time it has faced other challenges. The implementation of Palisades Reservoir on the South Fork took a big bite out of elk wintering grounds. That, combined with expanding agriculture and development, has left the elk wondering where to go. The IF&G won't let them mingle too close to the wintering grounds where cattle are for fear of disease transmission. And the private domestic elk ranches on the west end are off limits too. Up to 2005, IF&G had been baiting the herds away from the disease threats, and attempts were made to get the elk to winter elsewhere. Snowmobiling has also scared the elk away from some traditional wintering grounds on the north side of the Zone. These are still challenges for the IF&G, but they are hoping the herds will find ways to sustain themselves away from threats.

Other than those concerns, the herd is doing quite nicely, number-wise. The cows and bulls are above objective, according to the 2009 population survey. And mature bulls are well above objective. Objectives are 400-600 cows, and 461 cows counted. Objectives for bulls are 125-200, of which they want 75-125 mature bulls. The survey counted 195 bulls, of which 153 were mature. I like that.

Again, the stats required a little guesswork, but I think I'm probably being overly-conservative:

Elk per Square Mile: 0.85
Hunters per Square Mile: 0.85
Bulls per Square Mile: 0.25
Average Hunter Days: 6.35
Bull Harvest Percentage: 7%
Percentage Spikes Harvested: 11%
Percentage 6+ points Harvested: 39%


Well, another tough one. This is basically the flat, open desert vs. the steep, timbered mountains. Beauty-wise, there is no comparison. Palisades takes the cake with its typical Rocky Mountain aspen stands, its sagebrush openings, and its deep, dark timber. Plus, you're likely to watch the sun rise over the Tetons. Unless you really prefer hunting the stale desert between Blackfoot and Mud Lake, I'd recommend Palisades for the hunting experience.

But that isn't what this is about. This is about the best chance for harvesting a bull elk. The Snake River Zone says you're 10% likely to harvest a bull; 7% at Palisades. Of that percentage, you have a 30% chance of harvesting a 6 point or better in the Snake River Zone; that raises to 39% in Palisades.

The elk in Palisades are going to be more spread out, and thus your chance of running into other hunters will be less (if you stay off the trails). The elk in the Snake River Zone are not as dispersed, and will be in a predictable pattern of visiting the green hay fields. The hunters that hunt that zone know that, and so do you now. So if you decide to go there, you'll probably meet them. Not a big deal, both zones are big enough. But if you're in shape like a mountain goat, you're likely to get plenty away from other hunters in the Palisade Zone, and that's where the elk are anyway. In the Snake River Zone, who knows.

There are unique challenges to each Zone. Snake River is a challenge because first you have to locate elk, then figure out a way to ambush them on their patterns. It's wide open desert hunting. Palisades, on the other hand, provides more of a traditional hunting opportunity: go into the mountains, find an elk, and then shoot it.

The Winner

Palisades. I guess. I'd like to try the Snake River hunt, and it sure sounds like there's a lot of elk there. But there's also a good chance that you may not be at the right place at the right time there, and you could very well go home without seeing a thing. Palisades has a lot of elk too, and you're likely to see them, at the very least if you have a decent pair of binoculars. Then it's a matter of getting to them. But that's up to you, and what kind of shape you're in.

In the end, if you start your stair stepping workouts in January, I think you're more likely to harvest a bull (and a mature one, at that) in the Palisades Zone.

~ J. Bunch

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