Cow elk or bull?  Killing any elk is a success!


Deciding whether you must hunt for a record bull elk, or if a nice tasty cow elk will do, will influence how and, possibly, where you hunt. Any legally killed elk in wild elk habitat is an accomplishment to be respected. We cherish the memories of both kinds of successful hunts.

In many areas it is important to take some cows out to benefit the herd. If more hunters would be willing to kill some cows in those areas, the herds would be healthier and the numbers of bulls would actually increase. When cows are culled as needed, it is a win-win-win situation. Hunter success increases. Herd health improves. Ranchers are happy to lose less hay to the elk that is needed for their cattle. When I kill a bull on one Montana block managed ranch, I kind of hate to tell the rancher. When I kill a cow, I can’t wait to tell him, because they are always so glad to hear it!

Many states allow either sex during archery season. Killing a branch antlered bull during the peak of the rut is a great thrill, but a nice clean cow is so much easier to field dress and skin. A nasty old rutting bull is often caked with dried mud and his lower body is usually covered with his own urine. Cows don’t do that nasty stuff. It’s easier to keep the meat clean from a cow elk.

Antlerless Permit Increases Success

One year I ended up hunting from archery season the first of September straight through to the end of a late rifle season in December and was absolutely thrilled to finish the season, at last, with a nice big cow piled up in the deep snow.

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With only a few hours left of elk season, my meat was on the ground. While I was field dressing my elk, another elk hunter walked up and admitted he was tracking the same herd that I had just sent running. He asked me which way the herd went. I pointed toward a hopelessly arduous drainage. The downcast hunter put his feet in the tracks of the long-gone herd and set out with slumping shoulders, ready to stomp deep snow for the rest of the day, if necessary.

I felt sorry for him, then asked him, “Do you have an either sex permit?” He said that he did. I pointed in another direction and said, “Then follow this single set of elk tracks and you’ll soon find a nice sized yearling.” He thanked me and immediately started following that lone set of tracks.

In about ten minutes I heard him shoot. His harvest was not huge, though over twice as big as a deer, and it would be very tender. We were both thrilled to have finally harvested our annual elk meat. We crossed paths the rest of the day doing the hard work of packing meat in deep snow. It was the kind of demanding work that feels good on a man’s legs and back.

Most of us have visions of huge antlers and massive elk quarters in the early part of the season. Being willing to adjust our goals, allows success to be re-defined as well. Having an antlerless permit is not a guarantee, but it increases your chances of elk hunting success.

5 Reasons to Consider Taking a Cow

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation offers 5 reasons to consider taking a cow elk:

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1. Reducing a herd to fit the carrying capacity of its winter range is a form of habitat conservation. Culling a calf-producer is more effective population control. Wildlife agencies issue either-sex tags specifically to encourage hunter harvest of cows.

2. Letting young bulls walk improves your odds for a big, mature bull next year.

3. A more abundant bull population tends to be older which can improve efficiency of the rut. Result: more bulls surviving winter, higher pregnancy rates in cows, fewer late calves and better overall herd health.

4. A less abundant cow population tends to be younger, more vigorous and resistant to diseases.

5. As tablefare, cows and calves are generally better.

Cow Elk Hunting Takes Skill, Too

A cow elk provides lots of delicious meat (120 to 180 pounds or more), as well as collectible “ivories”. Successfully finding, killing and retrieving a cow elk is much harder than shooting an antlerless deer. (We shoot those, too.) Successful cow elk hunting is an accomplishment worth celebrating. They have incredibly keen eyes, ears and noses. They don’t do “stupid” things when the rut is on, like a bull will sometimes do when he has one thing on his mind. It takes hunting skill to kill a cow elk.

In some areas of Montana elk hunters are allowed to hunt either sex for a week. It’s good “insurance”, in case you’re still empty handed toward the end of rifle season.

It’s an awesome accomplishment to kill a nice bull elk, especially with a bow and arrow, but many elk hunters are very glad to kill a cow.

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(What do you think about the idea of hunting cow elk?)

Can You Keep Both Options Open?

If you can, leave your options open. Study the regulations and see if you can set yourself up with an either sex opportunity. In Montana, most of the regions during archery season allow “either sex elk” to be killed. Once rifle season starts, it becomes mostly “bull only”. With a special cow permit, I can kill bulls on one side of the highway and a cow on the other side.

Take your decisions about cow or bull elk into consideration as you plan where to hunt. You may have to get in there to determine where the elk will be during the different times of year. Then, when you think you have it figured out, they will change the “rules” on you anyway! That’s what makes it hunting instead of shooting.

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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 >>