Are There Elk in Nebraska?

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According to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s 2021 “Nebraska Elk Management Plan”, along with white-tailed deer, mule deer, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep, the state of Nebraska has an elk population of over 2500 animals.

Before the time of exploration and colonization by European Americans throughout the mid-western United States, elk were distributed throughout the cornhusker state, from the Missouri River in the east, across the Sandhills to the Pine ridge in the northwestern part of the state. However, elk disappeared from Nebraska in the 19th century.

Historical accounts of elk in Nebraska

  • Researchers have recovered elk remains from gravel bar deposits in various sites around Nebraska from the late Pleistocene age. Also, archeologists have found elk remains at 12 different sites in 9 different Nebraska counties. The oldest of these is in Burnt County. It is between 6,600 and 8,125 years old.
  • In more recent times, the elk was an important food source to the Pawnee people in southeastern Nebraska.
  • If the Pawnees discovered a herd of elk or deer to be in a particular patch of timber, they would encircle it and spook the terrified animals in circles until they were exhausted. At that point, they would move in and dispatch them with arrows. See
  • The Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition were the first explorers of European descent to report on elk in Nebraska. They documented elk and or elk sign in Richardson, Nemaha, Otoe, Douglas, Washington, Burt, Dixon, Cedar, and Knox Counties. It’s interesting to note that while they found elk throughout the state, they believed that they were most abundant in eastern Nebraska than in western Nebraska due to the greater amount of cover along the rivers and there being less competition from buffalo for feed. See
  • Other early American explorers who noted elk in Nebraska or on the great plains are Maj. Stephen Long, Henry Brackenridge, Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet, and naturist John Townsend, who recorded in 1834, “As they traveled westward along the Platte River in central Nebraska, they encountered “a large band of elk” that galloped past the group causing a great disturbance among their horses”
  • Subsistence hunting by emigrants along the Oregon, Mormon, and Deadwood trails, as well as market hunting along the new transcontinental railroad, greatly reduced the populations of elk and American bison on the great plains and in Nebraska in particular.
  • The railroad also accelerated the rate of human population growth. By 1880 the human population in Nebraska was approaching 500,000. The large-scale transfer of government land into private land for farms and ranches reduced the available habitat.
  • By the mid-1880s, both elk and bison were gone from Nebraska. Other animals that disappeared from Nebraska either in the 19th or early 20th century are the black bear, the mountain lion, the grizzly bear, and gray wolves. The black-footed ferret disappeared a little bit later in the 1970s
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The return of elk to Nebraska

In the year 1900, the Federal Government put a dent in the viability of market hunting through the passage of the Lacey Act. This law made interstate transportation and the sale of wildlife illegally taken under state law a federal offense.

In 1907, the state of Nebraska finally took steps to protect some of its native species. The Nebraska state legislature framed laws that prohibited pursuing, taking, wounding, or killing any elk, deer, antelope, or beaver.

Elk started showing up again in Nebraska almost 50 years after the 1907 law took effect. In the 1950s and 1960s, individual animals and small herds began showing up initially in Northwest Nebraska, in Box Butte and Garden Counties.

By the 1970s, a herd of elk had established itself in the Bordeaux Creek drainage in Dawes County. Big and little Bordeaux Creeks originate in the Pine Ridge in northwestern Nebraska. As the elk population along Bordeaux Creek continued to expand, landowners in the area began to experience depredation problems. To control the elk population in this area, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission held the first modern elk hunt in the state in 1986.

In the 1980s, small elk herds started showing up in other parts of the state. These included the North Platte River valley in the Nebraska panhandle and the Loess Canyons in southwest Nebraska.

Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge

The Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, which is in north-central Nebraska, is a former U.S. Army reservation along the banks of the Niobrara River. Today the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the lands as a wildlife refuge.

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The refuge is home to numerous species of mammals and over 230 species of birds. Two large ungulates that call the park home are a herd of 350 buffalo and a small herd of elk.

Elk Hunting in Nebraska

General season elk permits

Today Nebraska’s 2500 elk primarily live in the western part of the state. Consequently, in 2022, 5136 Nebraska residents applied for 128 available general bull elk permits from 7 different units in Western Nebraska.

I’ve listed Nebraska’s elk units below, along with the counties they exist in.

  • Ash Creek– The Ash Creek unit is in parts of Sioux, Dawes, and Box Butte counties
  • Bordeaux– The Bordeaux unit lies in portions of Dawes, Box Butte, and Sheridan counties.
  • Box Elder– The Box Elder unit lies in Dundy, Hitchcock, Red willow, Furnas, Chase Hayes, Frontier, Gosper, Perkins, Lincoln, Dawson, Mcpherson, and Logan Counties. Additionally, it lies in Portions of Keith, Arthur Grant, Hooker, Thomas, Blaine, Custer, Buffalo, Phelps, and Harlan.
  • Hat Creek– The Hat Creek unit lies within portions of Sioux, Dawes, and Box Butte.
  • Niobrara East – The Niobrara East unit lies in Rock, Holt, and Boyd Counties. Additionally, it lies in portions of Keya Paha, Knox, Antelope, Boone, Greeley, Wheeler, Garfield, Loup, Blaine, and Brown counties.
  • Niobrara West– The Niobrara West unit lies in Cherry County, as well as portions of Sheridan, Grant, Hooker, Thomas, Blaine, Brown, and Keya Paha Counties.

Besides general bull permits, Nebraska offered 236 General Antlerless Elk permits in the same units as the general bull permits. 1902 Nebraskans applied for these.

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The state allocates the number of general permits each year based on desired harvest quotas. Non-resident hunters are not eligible to apply for Nebraska general season permits.

Limited landowner permits

In 2022, the state of Nebraska also offered 95 bull elk and 339 antlerless elk landowner permits.

Both resident landowners and nonresident landowners who own at least 1240 acres of farm or ranch land used for agricultural purposes are qualified to apply for these permits.

Special elk depredation season

In the month of July 2022, the state of Nebraska held a special elk depredation season for specific parts of Lincoln, Perkins, Keith, Deuel, and Garden Counties.

The reason for this was to put a damper on the excessive damage that the population of elk was doing to crop fields in that area. See The hunt took place entirely on private land. What’s more, the unlimited quantity of permits was available to both residents and non-residents.

Nebraska elk going forward

The greatest challenge to future growth in Nebraska elk numbers is a scarcity of public lands in the state. Ninety-seven percent of Nebraska is private land.

It just so happens that Nebraska is a great agricultural state. Whether it be cattle or corn fields, and soybean fields, a lot of food comes out of Nebraska.

By contrast, the Rocky Mountain West has a great amount of land that isn’t suitable for much besides wildlife and great scenery.

Going forward, private landowners need to see some financial incentive to mitigate the inconvenience and financial drain that elk are apt to create. Limited landowner elk permits, for example, are a good step in the right direction.

In the future, the elk herds in Nebraska will never rival those in Wyoming or Montana. However, it’s good to see some elk and elk hunting going on in the Cornhusker state.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>