Round 1: Selway Elk Zone vs. Salmon Elk Zone

This is the fourth 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.
For the third post in this series, read Palouse Elk Zone vs. McCall Elk Zone.

Here we go comparing the Selway Elk Zone to the Salmon Elk Zone. First up, the Selway.

The Hunt

There are three any-weapon, antlered-only elk hunts in the Selway Zone.  One is on the A-tag, and ran from October1 - October 31 in 2011.  This over the counter tag had a quota of 647 tags.  These capped tags went on sale for non-residents on 12/1/2010, and for residents on 7/10/2011.  Those dates should be the same for the 2012 hunts.  In fact, the non-resident tags are probably already on sale.
The B-tag has two hunts, an early one and a late one.  The first ran from September 15-30, and the second from November 1 - 11.  In 2011, there were only 1,067 tags in the quota.  The beginning sale dates for these capped tags are the same as what was described above.

This has traditionally been a very popular hunt, so if you are planning on doing it, don't waste much time deciding to buy the tag, or else you may find that they've all sold out.


Location: middle of nowhere.  And that is why some people love it.  This is wilderness.  You either hike or ride a horse in.  There are folks who will guide you in and set you up with a camp.  But that, of course, will cost some money.  Before you half-hazardly decide to hunt the Selway, you need to have a plan of attack.  How will you get in?  How will you get out?  How will you get a downed animal out?  There are three hunts to choose from: September, October, and November.  But expect to encounter any kind of weather in any of those months.  You can access the Selway Zone from the Montana side as well.

The Selway Zone sits south of the Lolo Zone and HWY 12, which runs from Kooskia up to Lolo Pass.  The east boundary is the Montana-Idaho border.  To the south is the Middle Fork Elk Zone (also a very isolated wilderness area).  To the west is the Elk City Elk Zone and HWY 95, which runs from Riggins on north up to Grangeville.

The Zone consists of game Unit 16A, 17, 19, and 20.

Terrain/Land Ownership

This is virtually 100% U.S. Forest Service and designated wilderness land.  You will not have a problem finding a place to camp, but there will be no road to that camp.  Maybe a back country airstrip, though.  The Zone consists of 1,617,051 acres or 2,526 square miles.  With only 647 tags available for the A-tag, and 1,067 B-tags, there is a lot of space.  You might be more likely to run into a wolf than you would another hunter.  Oops, you didn't want to hear that.  I mean you might be more likely to run into an elk than another hunter.  More on wolves later...

As for the terrain, it is rugged, plain and simple.  The eastern border of the Zone will have you on the divide, where the mountains generally peak somewhere around 8,000 ft. in elevation.  Typical elevations will see the drainage bottoms between 2,000 - 4,000 ft, and the ridge tops from 5,000 - 7,000 ft.  And it is one beautiful peak right after another, a wilderness we're grateful to have here in Idaho.

There's a good mix of timber and open country here.  Some sections to the north appear to be more timbered, with more open areas found in the southern and western sections.  The terrain does change from high precipitation forests along certain reaches of the Selway River, to drier, Pondorosa pined ridges and grassland habitat along the Salmon River.  This has been a popular place to hunt for its scenery, solitude, and its elk habitat.  If you want the rugged elk hunt, this is it.

Some areas of the Zone have been burned in recent years, creating good elk habitat.  Other areas are over grown, and have choked out the elk forage.  Researching burn areas before the hunt can give you hints on places that might be better feeding grounds than others.

Herd Health/Stats

When Lewis & Clark came through, there weren't many elk in this area that was once a more unadulterated forest.  Since then, fires and other human activity have mixed up the terrain quite a bit, offering better habitat for the elk population.  Populations continued to grow, and peaked in the '50's.  It then started to go downhill from there due to a lack of fires, hunting pressure, and other environmental factors.  By the '70's the elk population had decreased substantially, and the IF&G changed the hunt to antlered-only.  Unfortunately, the elk population has continued to decline.  Some of that is due to unfavorable habitat change, and some of it is predation - primarily wolves.

Wolves are well established in the Zone.  Current harvest reports show that 4 wolves have been harvested by firearms, and 4 have been trapped.  The Selway wolf hunting season started August 2011, and will continue through June 2012.  There is no quota on the number of wolves that can be harvested in the Zone, but it isn't a piece of cake to harvest wolves here.  It is clear that the IF&G wants to see the elk population rebound, and a lower wolf population is one of the primary keys to that objective.  Local reports have stated that the elk stick close to the timber - a quick hiding place when they need one.

The objectives are to have 4,900-7,300 cows, 1,325-1,950 bulls (of which they want to see 750-1,175 mature bulls).  The 2007 survey counted 3,381 cows, 934 bulls (of which there were 726 mature bulls).

A couple of observation hits, for what they're worth.  77% of the bulls counted were mature.  All categories are below objective.  Hmmm.

The calf retention has been horrible here, due mainly, I think, to wolves.  But no doubt winters have taken a toll the past 15 years.  There's been some tough ones that did some major damage.  There are no cow hunts in the Selway Zone.

On to the stats:

Elk/square mile: 1.7
Hunters/square mile: 0.46
Bulls/square mile: 0.37
Average hunter days: 6.73
Bull Harvest Percentage: 12%
Percent Spikes Harvested: 15%
Percent 6+ points Harvested: 55%

The Salmon Elk Zone

The Hunt

The antlered, any-weapon hunt for the Salmon Zone is found on the B-tag, and ran from October 15 - November 8.  The A-tag is for archery-only, and is for any elk.  The archery season for the Zone runs from August 30 - September 30 (in Units 21, 21A, and 36B only), and December 1 - 31 (in Unit 28 only).  For the any-weapon B-tag, there is a quota of 2,507 tags.  They go on sale on 12/1/2011 for non-residents, and on 7/1/2012 for residents.  Once they are gone, they're gone.


The Salmon Zone starts at the little town of Clayton, and the eastern boundary of the Zone is HWY 93 as it zig zags north along the river to the relatively larger metropolis of Salmon.  From there, the boundary bolts away from the highway over to the convenient boundary that is the Montana-Idaho border.  It follows the border north, until it decides to break away from Montana, and heads west and south, defined by watersheds back down to Clayton.  There's cheap beer at the watering hole in Clayton (FYI).

Terrain/Land Ownership

The Salmon Elk Zone consists of 1,696,926 acres, or 2,651 square miles.  Of that, 83% is Forest Service, 12% is BLM, and the rest is private.  A great deal of the land is used for grazing, and there are some mining activities as well.  

I could go on and on about the terrain here, but there's nothing like seeing it for yourself.  I found this video representative of the terrain as a whole.  This was taken on the north end of the Zone.  Further south you will find steep, more open country around Challis.

Elevations range from 5,000 ft. to 8,000 ft.

Herd Health/Stats

Elk have always been in this area, but it held pretty low densities through much of the 20th Century.  Elk were translocated to the area from Yellowstone back in the 1930's in order to boost the population.  By the 1970's there was a stable herd, and numbers peaked in the 1990's.

The elk have a few habitat issues that demand management by the IF&G.  This zone has a healthy mule deer population, and the competition with the elk is a concern.  IF&G wants both species to maintain the highest numbers as possible.  There was a big fire in Unit 28 back 2000, and those kind of fires create excellent elk habitat.  But then on the predation side, wolves have taken care of business.  There are 4 well established packs in Unit 28 alone, and other packs wandering around the other units.  There is a careful balance between letting the herd get so big that it extends the carrying capacity of the Zone, and making sure it doesn't get destroyed by predators.  

There is a harvest limit of 40 in the Salmon Zone for the wolf season, and so far 19 have been killed.  The season lasts until March 31, 2012.  IF&G believes that wolves may provide some service to the elk herd here, keeping the herd within objectives, and within the carrying capacity of the habitat that they share with the mule deer.  I would rather let hunters take on that task than wolves, but that's just my opinion.

Objectives are for 4,600-7,000 cows, 975-1,425 bulls (of which 550-850 mature bulls are wanted).  2008 Surveys showed there were 6,182 cows, 884 bulls (of which 512 were mature).

A couple of notes on that: 1. 58% of the bulls were mature bulls, and 2. cows are within objective.

Now for the rest of the stats:

Elk/square mile: 2.67
Hunters/square mile: 0.99
Bulls/square mile: 0.33
Average hunter days: 5.9
Bull Harvest Percentage: 18%
Percent Spikes Harvested: 37%
Percent 6+ points Harvested: 26%

It all depends on the experience that you want.  If you want the back country experience with a good shot at a mature bull, then the Selway Zone is your choice.  If you care most about just harvesting something, then it would appear that the odds are better in the Salmon Zone.

If your priorities are low hunter density and opportunities at mature bulls, then pick Selway.  If you don't mind seeing more hunters, and want a really good chance at getting a spike, then pick Salmon.

The Winner

There is no question in my mind that I would pick the Selway Zone if I had the choice between the two.  Don't take that wrong - I think the Salmon Zone is an excellent choice for a hunt.  But the Selway experience would sway me.  Both Zones have wolf problems.  But elk are still there for the taking, and hopefully if you go to one of these Zones you can harvest a wolf too.  

But in the end, this little exercise was to determine the best place for harvesting an elk, not for finding the best experiences, and not for trophy hunting.  Because of that, the Salmon Zone takes the prize.

~ J. Bunch

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