Round 1: Sawtooth Elk Zone vs. Teton Elk Zone

This is the seventh 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.
For the fourth post in this series, read Selway Elk Zone vs. Salmon Elk Zone.
For the fifth post in this series, read Panhandle Elk Zone vs.Tex Creek Elk Zone.
For the sixth post in this series, read Middle Fork Elk Zone vs. Dworshak Elk Zone.

Here we go comparing the Sawtooth Elk Zone to the Teton Elk Zone. First up, the Sawtooth.

The Hunt

The A-Tag for the Sawtooth Elk Zone is an archery only season that ran in 2011 from August 30 through September 30.  The B-Tag is what we're primarily  looking at here, as it is the only any-weapon, antlered-only tag.  In 2011, the B-Tag general season ran from October 15 through November 8.  So it is a good long season, just over 3 weeks long.  But there is a quota on the number of B-Tags sold.  The cap is 1,526 tags, and they went on sale to non-residents on 12/1/2010, and to residents on 7/10/2011.


Located in the center of the state, the Sawtooth Elk Zone is a popular getaway for Boise and Twin Falls folks.  The Sawtooth Mountains are a state emblem right next to the potato.  The town of Stanley is the outpost in the middle of the Zone, and Garden Valley is the other one, located on the west end of the Zone.  Just a few hours drive from Boise or Twin Falls has made this a popular place to hunt.

Besides the Sawtooth Mountains, the Stanley Basin is known for its beauty, the Salmon River that runs through it, as do the Middle and South Forks of the Payette River.

The Zone consists of Game Management Units 33, 34, 35, and 36, covering 1,626,045 acres or 2,540 square miles.

Salmon River Area East of Stanley
Garden Valley Area
Unit 33 contains the small town of Garden Valley, with the Middle Fork of the Payette River running vertically through it.  Unit 34 holds Deadwood River and Reservoir on its western side, and the north east corner contains the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness roadless area.  Unit 35 has the South Fork of the Payette River running through it, as well as HWY 21, the main road from Boise to Stanley.  The Sawtooth Wilderness area is on the east side of the unit.  Unit 36 hosts the town of Stanley in its middle, with the Salmon River and HWY 75 extending to the eastern border of the Zone towards Challis.  Southbound HWY 75 goes through the basin to Galena Pass, and over the top towards Ketchum/Sun Valley.  The Sawtooth Wilderness sits on the southwest side of the unit, and the Frank Church Wilderness extends down into the northwest corner of the unit.

Terrain/Land Ownership

As for the terrain, you might generally call it mountainous.  The Sawtooth Mountains peak out at elevations above 10,000 ft.  Fingers extending west from the Sawtooths maintain 8,000 ft. on the ridge tops, and then dive down steepley to 6,000 ft. into the drainages.  East of the Sawtooths, across the basin, the terrain is a little more tame, but the further north you go, the mountains get more rugged, where elevations stick in the 7,000 - 8,000 ft. range.  The Garden Valley area sits a little less high in the 4,000 - 6,000 ft. range, but those elevations rise the further east you travel.
92% of the ground is considered forested, and 5% is considered rangeland.  Livestock grazing is minimal in the Zone.  Most of the Zone is mountainous, and well forested.  But there is a good continual mix of open and wooded areas that generally make this Zone pleasant to hunt.  Thus its popularity.  It is steep in areas, but more tame than the Middle Fork Elk Zone, and some of the wilder wilderness areas.
The wilderness areas are obviously more remote with their roadless areas, yet the area around Garden Valley has plenty of roads to get you around on.  The Zone really has a little bit for every kind of hunter.  If you are a do-it-yourself kind of person who likes to hike in several miles where there is guaranteed to be no other traffic, you can have it in the Sawtooth Zone.

If you like to road hunt, well, there's that too.  
94% of the land in the Zone is public, 3% is private, and the remainder is State of Idaho and BLM.  No issues finding a place to hunt and camp here.

Herd Health/Stats

Lots to talk about here.  In the mid to late 1800's trappers, hunters, and miners decimated the elk and deer population in this area.  In 1909, the Idaho Legislature decided to help the game population recover, and they established the South Fork Game Preserve in Unit 35.  No hunting occurred in the Zone until 1945, and the Preserve lasted until 1977.  The deer herd rebounded quickly, and by the late '70's, the elk herd had rebounded as well.  The elk numbers peaked in the early '90's at over 7,000 elk.  Less than half that exists now.

The desire is to manage this elk herd at relatively high numbers.  IF&G would love to have 750 bulls harvested from it every year.  That is a lofty goal.  Right now the sustainable bull harvest has to be equal or less than 250 bulls.  But IF&G wants to see the herd rebound again, balanced only by its concerns about winter feeding grounds.

The wintering areas are in a mess around the Garden Valley area, where rush skeleton weed has infested the south and west facing slopes, making those thousands of acres useless as winter feeding areas.  IF&G implements winter feeding programs approximately two years out of every five.

Bulls have been over-harvested in the past, and in 2010, the IF&G stated that more bulls are being harvested than are being recruited.  Calf recruitment has generally been in the dumps.  More on that in a minute.  Tag quotas are now a 46% reduction from the 2008 season.

As for predation issues, the Big 3 (bears, mt. lions, and wolves) are all well established in the Zone.  Bear and mountain lions most certainly are elk predators, but the extent of their predation is not known.  Wolves, however, are to blame for the declining elk herd in the Sawtooth Zone.  In many cases, such as with the Selway Elk Zone, the IF&G will acknowledge that wolves are present, that they are a threat to the elk population, but the extent of the damage done by wolves is not fully known.  But with the Sawtooth Zone, the IF&G makes no bones about it.  Wolves are a huge issue here.

In 2009 there were more than 12 packs that were well established.  And here's the bit on calf recruitment, and it appears to be tied with wolves.  In 2008 and 2009, calf recruitment rates were drastically low.  In 2010, the year following the first legal wolf hunt in Idaho, calf recruitment rates spiked up.  It will be interesting to compare calf recruitment rates after this wolf hunting season to see if 2010 was an anomaly, or if the wolf hunts may be helping in some way.  As of 2/9/2011, 20 wolves have been harvested in the Sawtooth Zone this season.

In 2008, a winter survey was taken.  2,696 cows were counted (objective is to have 3,050 - 4,550), and 251 bulls were counted (objective is to have 600 - 975).  Of those 251 bulls, 82 mature bulls were counted (objective is to have 355 - 575 mature bulls).  Objectives are not being met, and hunter numbers have consequently declined as well, from around 6,000 in 2006 to less than 3,000 in 2010.

Here's how the stats line up.  The only wrinkle in these stats is that Unit 34 has no data, as it was not surveyed.  Elk population survey used for this was 2008.  I think these numbers are fairly close to reality, however.

Elk/Square Mile: 1.2
Hunters/Square Mile: 0.9
Bulls/Square Mile: 0.10
Average Hunter Days: 5.24
Bull Harvest Percentage:  12%
Percent Spikes Harvested: 42%
Percent 6+ points Harvested: 20%

Teton Elk Zone

The Hunt

The any-weapon, antlered-only hunt for the Teton Zone ran from October 15, 2011 to October 21, 2011 on the B-Tag.  Archery seasons lasted from 8/30 - 9/30, and the A-Tag also had an any-weapon, anterless-only season from 10/22 - 11/15.  We will only be focusing on the B-Tag here.


The Teton Zone is squeezed in between the Island Park Elk Zone on the north, and the Palisades Elk Zone on the south.  Starting in Sugar City, the border follows HWY 20 up to Ashton, then northeast up through Warm River and to Yellowstone National Park's boundary.  The border then goes south on the Wyoming - Idaho border down to HWY 31, and then jogs up to the town of Victor.  From Victor the border follows HWY 31 west out of town until it decides to cut off a chunk of the Big Hole Mountains from the Palisades Zone.  After taking that watershed for itself, it meets up with HWY 33, and heads west back to Sugar City.

The Teton Zone is located northeast of Idaho Falls, a roughly 45 minute drive from Idaho Falls to Ashton on HWY 20.  Home to rolling malt barley and seed potato fields (Ashton is the seed potato capital of the world), the rolling hills give way to the foothills of the Tetons on the east.  Waking up to sunrise over the Tetons is just one bonus to hunting here.

Terrain/Land Ownership

First, let's talk about where you can hunt in this Zone.  75% of the land here is private, and 24% is BLM and USFS.  In a Zone that consists of just 457,617 acres (715 square miles), only about 112,000 acres are on public ground.

There are two primary places to hunt in the Teton Zone.
The first one is in the USFS land along the Wyoming border.  Basically, unlike the east side of the Tetons where the mountains rise straight up 15 million feet from the valley floor, the west side has foothills that gently rise up to where the rocky crags of the Tetons take over.  Those foothills spill across the Idaho border for several miles.  But it isn't far.  Several miles might be generous.  This strip of USFS land that is huntable stretches from Warm River on the north down nearly to Driggs.

Believe me, it doesn't take long to find yourself in Wyoming, so do take caution.  Those foothills spilling into Idaho are essentially canyons running east-west with creeks in the bottom.  And they are well timbered.  It is pretty thick in there.  That's not to say that there isn't any breathing room at all; there are meadows here and there.  But be prepared for hunting dark timber.

The second area to hunt in this Zone is in the mountains west of Victor and Driggs, as well as in the tiny corner south of HWY 31, east of Victor.  This area of USFS land adds an element of variety.  On the whole, it is probably steeper than the area along the Wyoming border, but it is a good mix of open sagebrush, dark timber, and aspen stands.  The terrain is very similar to the Palisades Elk Zone, which borders the Teton Zone just to the south.

Herd Health/Stats

Herd health.  Herd health?  What herd?  Yeah, there's sort of a

herd here.  There has always been an elk presence in the Zone.  There has to be.  It just looks like an elky kind of place.  But the elk presence is really dependent upon weather.  Elk summer in the high elevations of the Big Hole Mountains, and work there way down as fall and winter approach.  On the north and eastern parts of the Zone, the elk have to be pushed into the area by lots of snow where they summer in Wyoming and in Yellowstone National Park.

Weather and winter range are the two factors that determine elk presence.  There is very little winter range for the elk.  The elevation in the Teton Valley is about 6,000 ft., and huntable areas on USFS land generally rise to about 7,000 ft.  So this is a high elevation Zone that gets a lot of snowfall, and often extreme temperatures.

Winter feeding stations are no longer in use, but have consistently been used in the past.  This has created dependent elk, too many elk for the real habitat during the winter.  Agricultural expansion in the past century, and recent residential development near Victor and Driggs have also taken up rare wintering areas.  What wintering areas are left are usually ran over by recreational snowmobiles in the winter.  Elk like the woods to be a quiet place.  Snowmobiles aren't quiet.

The most recent winter survey in 2006 counted 173 cows, 125 bulls (of which, 95 were mature bulls).  Objectives are to maintain 150-250 cows, 35-55 bulls (of which, 15-35 should be mature).  Just not a lot of action here.  Approximately 50-60 elk winter SE of Victor, and they usually show up late-winter.  Approximately 130 elk retreat from the Big Hole Mts. west of Victor and Driggs, and winter along the Teton River in the basin.  Then there's usually a couple of other small groups that descend from Yellowstone.  All of this movement is generally after the Oct. 15 - Oct. 21 general season hunt.

Predation probably is insignificant compared to the weather issues.  IF&G says there is a moderate and stable black bear population.  I have a hard time believing that it is anything but a high population, especially in the timbered areas.  Mt. Lions are rare.  Grizzlies are increasing in population, and spreading.  Several attacks happened near Driggs/Victor/Jackson in the past year.  There are 3 established wolf packs that call the Teton Zone part of their territory, and undoubtedly do have some affect on the elk, but how much exactly is unknown.

So, the stats; brace yourself:

Elk/Square Mile: 0.42
Hunters/Square Mile: 0.15
Bulls/Square Mile: 0.17
Average Hunter Days: 5.2
Bull Harvest Percentage:  5%
Percent Spikes Harvested: 0%
Percent 6+ points Harvested: 50%

Analysis & The Winner 

The winner is the Sawtooth Zone.  But this was an exercise in comparing two of Idaho's dud Elk Zones.  Wolves have made the Sawtooth Zone pretty tough to hunt, especially if you head very far east of Garden Valley.  There just isn't the herd that there once was.  Hopefully a successful wolf season will help calf recruitment there.

The Teton Zone could be doable.  It's the kind of place that is weather-depending.  If the high elevations get heavy snow in early October, the elk will start heading down.  Some big bulls have been harvested here, and the cow to bull ratio from surveys shows that a lot of big bulls come down.  So there is a chance.  But it's too chancy.  If I had to plan a hunt, and had to choose between these two, I would take the Sawtooth Zone, get away from where the elk are heavily pressured, and roll the dice.  At least there I wouldn't have to worry about turning the corner and finding some mama grizzly glaring at me.

~ J. Bunch

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More