Editor's note: This story originally ran in September 2007.
The numbers don't lie. When it comes to finding big bull elk sporting gnarly - even prehistoric-looking - trophy-sized racks, Utah is the place.
The Boone and Crockett Club, the official record-keepers of big-game trophies of North America, reported that from 2000 to 2006, no other state produced more record-book bulls than Utah.
"It is pretty well known that hunters who want the best chance of taking a big bull come here," said Jim Karpowitz, director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR). "Thanks to some thoughtful people, we have made some pretty good management decisions on elk programs throughout the years. Those programs have made Utah the premier state for elk in the nation."
Utah has produced seven of the top 50 typical bulls - ones with symmetrical antlers on both sides - of all time since 2003, including No. 4 on the list. A new state record nontypical bull was taken in 2002 and just last week a nontypical bull was dropped that will likely make the top 10 of all time.
Getting the state's elk herds to this lofty status is not only good for hunters. More elk are visible across the state for a growing number of wildlife watchers. And high prices for limited elk hunting permits bolster state wildlife efforts at a time when hunting - and the key revenue it provides the DWR - is in decline.
Utah's Rocky Mountain elk population numbered between 12,000 and 15,000 when Karpowitz started working as a big-game biologist 29 years ago. There are now close to 64,000 elk in Utah, a figure based on 2006 post-hunting season projections. Biologists have set an objective of 68,000 elk, with an overall goal of 80,000.
Elk drew 31,656 hunters to the field, primarily to public lands, late last summer and fall, second only to the deer hunt.
For Bill Christensen, Utah field director of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, funding has been key to the success. The nonprofit foundation, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary in Utah, reports that its 14 chapters and more than 4,000 members have "conserved or enhanced" more than 735,000 acres of wildlife habitat in the state at a cost of nearly $21 million.
"When you spend money on a habitat project it benefits not only elk and many other species, but also livestock owners," said Christensen. "One of the biggest problems in growing the Utah herds was that the agricultural groups were opposed to elk. They thought the only good elk was a dead elk. Through habitat efforts they saw that the grazing for their livestock was better and private landowners also realized if they made efforts to foster elk they could also make some money in permits, money that often helped them hold onto the land rather than having to sell it."
Through the state's Cooperative Wildlife Management Unit program, Utah landowners can sell a certain number of big-game hunting permits, as determined by state biologists based on habitat conditions and herd populations. The landowners in return must provide 10 percent of the overall total permits to the public. Some of these elk permits can go for as much as $12,000. Public elk permits through the program cost $280 and are awarded by a drawing.
Higher herd numbers and controlled hunts produce big bulls, which some hunters will pay top dollar for a chance to pursue. Utah's 2007 statewide elk conservation permit, which allows hunters to pursue elk on any open unit, drew a high bid of $100,000 in January; former Jazzman and future NBA Hall of Famer, Karl Malone paid $50,000 for a permit on a single unit known to harbor trophy-sized elk.
Money isn't the only ticket to success. Aron Hall-Terracciano, a 15-year-old from Washington, lucked out and had his name drawn from 6,806 entries to win the coveted 2007 Sportsman's elk tag. His dad paid $5 to enter Aron in the drawing (the teenager didn't even know about the hunt until his father explained it to him) and then $280 for the elk tag.
Aron filled the Sportsman's tag Sept. 1 when he took a bull scoring an impressive 372 Boone and Crockett points on the same unit Malone paid $50,000 to hunt this fall.
"It was a really great experience. It was my first big-game animal and it was really fun to be with my dad and brother when it happened," Aron said.
Elk history in Utah
Wildlife officials believe that elk and bighorn sheep were the dominant big-game species in the state before pioneers and miners arrived. Uncontrolled hunting pushed elk numbers to low levels by the end of the 1800s and, according to the DWR's Statewide Elk Management Plan, the first restrictions were applied in 1898.
An intensive effort to augment and expand the state's herds took place from 1912 to 1925, with animals being relocated from Yellowstone National Park and Montana to Utah locales including Fish Lake, the Oquirrh Mountains, Mount Nebo, Logan Canyon and Mount Timpanogos.
Elk were managed under a limited-entry hunt until 1967 when the state began applying changes to allow hunters to take young bulls and cultivate trophies at the same time.
Karpowitz and Christensen agree that the No. 1 concern for Utah's elk population is loss or destruction of habitat.
"We need to continue to utilize partnerships to secure as much habitat as we can. If there is no land, there will be no elk," Christensen said.
The state Elk Management Plan identifies uncontrolled off-highway vehicle use as another issue, pointing out that illegal riding can destroy critical big game habitat and disturb wildlife populations.
Another concern is disease. Chronic wasting disease has yet to be detected in Utah elk, although it is already affecting some deer populations. Brucellosis, tuberculosis, blue tongue and epizootic hemorrhagic disease, affecting elk herds elsewhere in the Western U.S., are also of concern.
Reaping the benefits
Big bulls became common for Utah elk hunters around the mid-1990s and record-breakers started to show up at the new millennium. It was a bull taken in 2002 by Grantsville resident Jeff Didericksen, who had also drawn the Sportsman's elk tag against heavy odds, that really got the attention of national elk hunters.
Doyle Moss, of MossBack Outfitters, led Didericksen to the bull in late December 2002. Didericksen described the animal as "prehistoric." The bull ended up netting 412 Boone and Crockett points. Moss did it again last fall, leading Ron Skoronski to a new state record typical bull that gave Utah a top-five all-time trophy.
"There is just a magic about elk. People really love them and not just hunters," Karpowitz said. "They are the state animal, they are on our new Division of Wildlife Resources logo and they are by far the No. 1 species of interest in the state."
* BRETT PRETTYMAN can be contacted at email@example.com or 801-257-8902.
* UTAH'S ELK RECORDS continue to fall like autumn leaves.
* THE TYPICAL ELK - symmetrical antlers on both sides - record was broken three times in 2006, with the final high mark a monster bull taken by Ron Skoronski. His bull turned up a net score of 428 6/8 Boone and Crockett points and, when finalized, will be the fourth-highest-scoring typical bull ever taken.
* OVERALL, UTAH HAS PRODUCED seven top 50 typical bulls since 2003, and four in the top 25 of all time in the same time frame.
* NEWS FROM THE WOODS is that MossBack Guides and Outfitters, which helped turn up the state nontypical - not symmetrical - record in 2002, has done it again.
* A BULL TAKEN by a MossBack client last week is reported to have scored 443 gross Boone and Crockett points. The antlers will have to go through a 60-day drying period for a final net score, but it will likely end up in the top 10 of all time and easily become the new Utah record.
Hardware Ranch Elk Festival
* THE 8TH ANNUAL Elk Festival at Hardware Ranch is Oct. 13 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
* THE FAMILY FRIENDLY EVENT provides a variety of elk-themed activities at the Division of Wildlife Resources property in Blacksmith Canyon in Cache County.
* FOR DIRECTIONS and more information, visit http://www.wildlife.utah.gov/hardwareranch/.