Spin through an elk hunting website or magazine and you’ll see a lot of rugged backcountry—a mountain setting with a mule packstring, or at least hiking boots and trekking poles.
But a new world-record archery bull taken in 2020 drives home an emerging fact: The world of North American elk is being reshuffled. In certain farmland country, elk hunting is looking more and more like whitetail deer hunting.
In 2020, and Alberta farmer Shawn O’Shea rewrote the record book with an enormous 9-by-9 bull that taped a staggering 449 4/8 inches Pope & Young. He took the elk in Minburn County, east of Edmonton. Minburn County is a rolling mix of grain, hay, pasture, and the aspen scrub Canadians call “the bush.” It’s a long, long way from the mountains.
O’Shea’s bull represents a major shift in the world of elk. In my 40 years of elk hunting, the days almost always started with a predawn march toward the timberline. Traditionally, public land elk tended to be found on the upper third of the mountains during hunting season until snow pushed them down.
Increasingly these days, elk are found in farmland. Some of this is due to changes on the landscape, such as forests getting dryer and older and producing less browse. Predator levels—particularly mountain lion and wolf—are expanding on public lands. Traditional beef-and-hay operations are increasingly being bought by new arrivals who turn the ground into hobby or “amenity ranches” that are friendlier to visiting herds of elk.
On top of all that, conservation groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation are successfully restoring and expanding elk populations further from the public lands of the interior West. (Remember, before European settlement, elk were widely distributed across North America including the Great Plains, Midwest, and Mississippi and Ohio River drainages.)
Sure, plenty of good elk hunting remains in the mountains. But increasingly elk can be found in lowlands where crops are cultivated—no wall tents necessary.
My friend Tod Byers of Spokane enjoys remarkable success hunting patches of brush and timber around rolling fields of garbanzo beans and lentils in Eastern Washington. Other hunters are finding bulls amid standing corn in South Dakota and Nebraska. Many Montanans are intercepting well-fed bulls as they wander out of alfalfa fields at first light.
These savvy hunters are adapting whitetail hunting techniques to farmland elk. The similarities between elk and whitetails are great, but the differences are also profound.
Think Habitat Security No matter where they live, elk are sensitive to disturbance. Most plowed fields offer little security cover. Where a spooked whitetail buck might dash a few hundred yards to the nearest windrow, a spooked elk might run miles. Sometimes, well-enforced no-trespassing signs can provide the refuge elk need to hold tight. Other times, a piney hill or subtle canyon can provide enough solitude to make them feel comfortable. Pressured elk also go nocturnal, avoiding daylight to stay out of trouble.
Seek Crop Damage While elk are happy to live in agricultural areas, they are not always welcome. One individual elk consumes several tons of forage annually. A herd of 100 make short work of sprouting crops, trample fences, and chomp haystacks along the way. Local fish and game officials are often happy to point you toward landowners tired of suffering crop damage. If you’re satisfied taking a cow rather than holding out for a trophy bull, you may have better odds of finding a supportive landowner.
Tree Stands and Trail Cameras Decades ago, tree stands became the primary tactic for whitetail deer hunting nationwide. Still, hunters take only a tiny fraction of elk from above. In 2018 Byers took a six-point bull with an arrow through the lungs at 12 yards from a tree stand. He knew the bull was on the parcel because his trail cams told him so. In 2019, he scored from a pop-up ground blind. Those are the kind of tactics O’Shea used to tag his world record as well.
OnXmaps Elk are big and nomadic. While a whitetail buck may spend his entire lifetime within one square mile, an elk may range over 15 square miles, property lines be damned. To hunt elk in farm country, pays to have good relationships with more than one property owner long before opening day. OnX is a great way to know who owns what ground, so you knock on the right doors.
Waterhole Ambush Deer often gain enough moisture to sustain themselves largely from lush feed. Elk seek out liquid water more regularly. Particularly during drier fall weather, irrigated fields, farm ponds, cattle tanks, and quiet streams are prime places to watch.
Unlike whitetail deer, elk are normally herd animals that depend upon safety in numbers. On my father’s farm in Idaho, it’s not unusual to see grounds of 75 or 100 elk at his duck pond. That makes for exciting hunting, but also the challenge that comes with trying to circumvent 150 to 200 elk nostrils, eyes, and ears poised for danger.
Packing Out Perhaps the greatest advantage to farmland elk comes after the kill. Mountain elk often need to be packed out in small pieces under great labor. My dad is 86 and hunts on our home farm in Idaho, which produces Timothy hay for export markets. After harvest, the stubble allows little forage. But after the first fall rain the grass sprouts green and delectable again. Dad hauled his last bull home whole—in the bucket of his John Deere tractor.
Feature image via John Hafner.