Hunting in Idaho: The undiscovered gem of the West?

Beautiful landscape of Idaho

When most hunters think about hunting the American West, they typically think about Montana or Colorado, New Mexico or Arizona. Idaho is seldom the first state that is considered. But then again: perhaps the best opportunities for getting an OTC elk tag; no holds barred on black bear (that is to say, both baiting, spot-and-stalk, and hunting with hounds are allowed and possible); wolf hunting that is nearly like in the good old days; interesting limited draw options (Super Hunt); and many other animals and hunts… The name “Idaho” is supposed to mean “the gem of the mountains”; as for hunting, can one say that Idaho is an undiscovered gem of the West?

Territory and landscape

Idaho features many diverse ecosystems, including sage brush country, agricultural lands in the Snake River valley, and alpine meadows, but most of the country is covered by spruce forests and mountains. In fact, the Rocky Mountains constitute the greater part of the territory of Idaho, and numerous large lakes, rushing rivers, steep canyons give the state the rugged and beautiful landscapes.

Beautiful landscape of Idaho

In Idaho there are fewer people per square mile than in most other states, and more wilderness areas, including the 2.3-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, the largest contiguous area of protected wilderness in the continental U.S. With the mountains blocking cold fronts from the north, Idaho is on the average a bit warmer than Montana and Wyoming which are located at the same latitude. This positively affects primary productivity of the ecosystems, and Idaho can boast of healthy populations of many species of game.

Hunting in Idaho

Idaho Fish and Game does a lot to improve hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreational opportunities in the state. A lot of work is dedicated to restoration of mule deer numbers that went down during the hard winter of 2016-2017. Restoring habitat, fighting invasive vegetation, and providing safe migration passages are all essential in this respect. Another project worthy of mentioning is “Access Yes!”, which provides hunters with access to many private lands.

Not surprisingly, Idaho has tremendous hunting opportunities. The rugged wilderness of the state is home to numerous elk, deer, pronghorn, black bears, mountain lions, wolves, moose, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep. In addition, the upland bird hunting is excellent, with California quail, chukar, grey partridge, five types of grouse, pheasants, and turkeys available.

Hunters in Idaho must possess a hunting license, a tag for the particular species of big game they are after, and they must have proof of having taken a hunter education class if born after January 1, 1975. Many licenses and tags, even for such a coveted species as elk, are available over the counter, including the Landowner Appreciation Program, and for Outfitter Application. Random draw hunts in Idaho are known as “Controlled Hunts”. Controlled hunts are distributed in two drawings, and those who were not successful in the first draw will be automatically entered in the second. Tags left over after the first draw are sold over the counter. For the first draw, no more than 10% tags can go to non-resident hunters, for the second draw and OTC tags this rule does not apply.

A horse and mule pack train

Key Application Dates

– May 1 – June 5: First application period for deer, elk, pronghorn and fall bear.

– July 10: Winners of first drawing posted at and successful applicants notified.

– August 1: Deadline for deer, elk, pronghorn and fall bear winners to purchase their controlled hunt tag, except those who have drawn an unlimited hunt.

– August 1: First day residents and nonresidents may buy leftover nonresident general season deer or elk tags at nonresident prices, as a second tag.

– August 5-15: Second application period for deer, elk, pronghorn and fall bear.

– August 25: Winners of second drawing will be notified by this date.

– August 26, 2020: Leftover tags from second drawing go on sale at 10 a.m. Mountain Time.

There are minimum requirements for poundage in bows and crossbows, and minimum caliber requirements for air rifles (at least .35 caliber for deer and pronghorn and .45 for elk and moose) and muzzleloaders (.45 for deer and pronghorn, and .50 for moose). For muzzleloader hunts, please note that only traditional flint or cap lock guns firing loose powder and a ball or lead conical bullet and equipped with iron or peep sights are legal. Modern inventions such as sabots and pelletized powder are not allowed, and only hunters with visual disability can use non-magnifying scopes on a special permit.

Harvesting a moose, bighorn, or mountain goat in Idaho is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The exception is for moose if you’re lucky to draw a Super Hunt, purchase a leftover moose tag, and for bighorn if you win a lottery or auction tag.
It is impossible to cover all rules and regulations in one post, and changes may happen every minute, so it’s always best to check the latest version at the Idaho Fish and Game website.

A campfure after a successful elk hunt


Elk in Idaho can be found from the sagebrush deserts to the central mountains to the timbered ridges in the northern part of the state. Idaho has some of the best options for OTC elk tags available to hunters. Two kind of tags, “A” and “B” – the former giving more opportunities to bow and muzzleloader hunters, the latter to rifle hunters – are available over-the-counter. Controlled hunt tags are allocated by random draw. Like with deer hunts, hunters can purchase unsold non-resident tags for some units.

Another great option for elk hunters are Outfitter Allocation controlled hunts. This is a tag that can be obtained by a licensed outfitter on behalf of the hunter. The outfitter must be licensed in the area of the hunt, and the hunter must have a written agreement with the outfitter before applying for this tag. The tags are to be purchased before August 20, so don’t waste any time if you want to hunt elk in Idaho.

In 2020, there were an estimated 120,000 elk in Idaho, and elk harvest in 2019 exceeded 20,000 animals for the sixth straight year. Obviously, the healthier the elk herd, the more tags are allowed. Thankfully, elk numbers are above or within population objectives in most areas of the state. It’s easier to say in which units they are below the objectives: Dworshak (unit 10A), Lolo (Units 10 and 12), Elk City (14-16), Selway (16A, 17, 19, 20), Sawtooth (34-36).

The best opportunities for elk hunting are found in the most remote and wild parts of the state (it figures), where travel by motorized vehicles is restricted. Many outfitters in Idaho offer drop-in elk hunts, where the outfitted does not provide the guiding, but only takes the hunter into the wilderness, typically by horse or mule pack trails. Quite a few guided hunts are carried out from camps arranged in this manner, too. But this only adds to the fun, doesn’t it?

Mules descending on a snowy trail


Idaho has both white-tailed deer and mule deer, and the herds are healthy and abundant. This especially concerns the whitetails. In 2015, hunters in Idaho harvested a record 30,568 whitetailed deer, and the figures for the last few years are not too far behind. You can choose any deer tag, good for both whitetail and mule deer, or a whitetail only tag. Generally, hunters are limited to one deer per year, but may have a chance to purchase unsold tags for certain units.

Mule deer are widespread in the central mountains and southern deserts of Idaho, while white-tailed deer dominate the northern forested areas and river bottoms. Mule deer herds have been hurt by the tough winter of 2016-2017, but are recovering. Still, mule deer hunting opportunities have been limited, especially as much as it concerns antlerless hunts. Mule deer seasons are shorter in most units than whitetail deer seasons.

More about mule deer hunting.

A lot of deer hunts are undertaken in combination with elk hunts. Note that some areas are short-range weapons only. Short-range weapons are shotguns, bows, muzzleloaders, handguns for straight-walled cartridges not originally designed for rifles, and air rifles.
If you are on a deer or elk hunt, but you see a black bear, wolf, or mountain lion, remember that you can use your unused deer or elk tag on these predators, too. The condition is that both the deer or elk season, and the cougar, wolf, or bear season must be open in the locality at the time of the hunt. But many people come to Idaho for a dedicated hunt for these species.

A mule deer trophy


A hundred years ago the general public cheered at the news that the last wolf was killed in such and such locality, and supported complete extermination of the species. Today many of the non-hunting general public supports wolf reintroduction and is enraged by wolf hunting. The truth is in the middle; the wolf is an amazing predator that deserves a place in the ecosystems, but, to flatten the curves of natural boom and bust cycles wolf numbers have to be controlled, same as any other species. Fortunately, the Idaho Game and Fish understands that and offers perhaps the greatest opportunity for wolf hunting in the Lower 48.

Wolf hunting in Idaho is effectively open all year, especially on private land,  and the limit is 15 animals per calendar year. Animals of either sex may be taken, but the evidense of sex must be left attached to the skin until it is submitted to be tagged by the Fish and Game. Using dogs for wolf hunting is illegal, and so is hunting over bait (unless a wolf visits the bait laid for a black bear). Nocturnal and wary, wolves very seldom show themselves in the open during daytime,but always be prepared and on the lookout because with Idaho’s high population bumping into one isn’t uncommon. Calling is the most successful way of wolf hunting legal in Idaho, electronic calls may be used for wolf hunting in some units.

Wolves are secretive and intelligent, and wolf hunting is an exact opposite of “slaughtering defenseless animals.” The evidence is that in spite of many resident and non-resident hunters pursuing grey wolves in Idaho, the statewide cap on harvest is hardly reached. Any hunter can be proud of harvesting a wolf.

Black bear

Unlike some other states, Idaho allows all popular methods of black bear hunting – over bait, with hounds, by spot-and-stalk, and by calling. There are both the spring and the fall season, and tags are available over-the-counter. However, you must check with regulations before planning a hunt. Some units do not allow the use of dogs, or baiting, in certain times of the season, or completely. In others, by contrast, you can hunt a black bear with an electronic call. Females with young are protected at all times!

Baiting opportunities are somewhat limited by the regulation that forbids placing the baits before the season (except in Units 10, 12, 16A, 17, 19, 20, 20A, 26, and 27, where you can set a bait a week before the start of the season). No part of game animals and fish can be used for bait.

More about black bear baiting techniques

Three bears on a tree

Bear hunters in Idaho should also be aware that they may encounter a grizzly bear. Grizzly bear hunting is currently illegal (even though their numbers have exceeded the threshold by a large number) and a mistaken identity can cause a lot of problems. One thing you should not rely on is the skin color – Idaho is home to a large number of color phase black bears, including brown and cinnamon color, which closely resemble the color of the grizzly bear. If you are going to be hunting in an area where you could encounter grizzly bears make sure you study and educate yourself on identifying characteristic differences between grizzly and black bears.

Mountain lion

Hounds are the most efficient way of hunting mountain lions, and also the most enviro-friendly (believe it or not), because the sex and size of the cougar can be reliably estimated before the harvest. However, Idaho law requires a person to have a special hound hunter permit, as well as a black bear or mountain lion tag, to run hounds on the respective animals. Non-resident outfitters, and non-resident hunters who want a DIY hunt with their hounds must obtain a hound hunter permit. There’s a limit on the number of non-resident hound hunter permits, and they must be obtained in advance. Thankfully, this rule does not apply to clients of licensed outfitters.

More about mountain lion hunting with hounds

A puma on a tree


The moose population in Idaho is estimated at 10,000 to 12,000. While moose populations are declining in parts of the state, they are expanding their range in several other areas. The decline in moose numbers is a common trend across the Lower 48. Hunters often blame the wolf, but Idaho Fish and Game points out that moose numbers are decreasing even in areas where the wolves are at a minimum level. Other suspects are climate change and the general 50-year cycle in moose numbers worldwide. In any case, shrinking populations led to a decrease in the number of moose tags available. However, according to Idaho Fish and Game, the success rates for moose exceed 70%, and there are over 500 tags allocated. What state in the Lower 48 provides a better moose hunting opportunity?

Bighorn sheep

For the mountain hunter, Idaho offers an opportunity to harvest two varieties of the bighorn sheep – Rocky Mountain bighorn and California bighorn. Several thousand bighorn sheep roam Idaho’s remote rugged mountains and steep river canyons. All in all, there were only 99 bighorn sheep tags issued for the 2019-2020 season, of which 80 were for Rocky Mountain bighorn (hunted north of Interstate 84), 17 for California bighorn (south of Interstate 84), and 1 each for the raffle and special auction. Another option to win a bighorn sheep tag in Idaho is the bighorn raffle. You can buy as many tickets as you wish to pay for, in packages starting from $20 for 1 ticket to $250 for 25 tickets. This raffle is one way to bypass Idaho’s once-in-a-lifetime rule for bighorn sheep, raffle winners are exempt from this rule as are the winning bidders on the Idaho Governor’s sheep tag auctioned each year.

The average length of California bighorns harvested in Idaho in 2019 was 30.7”, with average circumference 14.2”. For Rocky Mountain bighorns the numbers are 32.5” and 12.2”. The biggest Rocky Mountain bighorn ram killed in Idaho in 2019 measured 39.25” with 15.25” circumference, and was harvested in Area 11.

Two hunters glassing in the mountains

Other game

Perhaps the most coveted species among Idaho big game, at least in terms of hunting opportunities, is mountain goat. Mountain goats are found in North Idaho, the White Cloud Mountains of central Idaho, and the far southeastern corner of the state. The hunts are limited draw only, and the odds are not very high.

Idaho may not be the first-choice destination for pronghorn hunts, but it does have an abundant population where you can harvest a good trophy. All pronghorn tags are limited draw only. During an archery hunt for pronghorn, it’s important to remember that it’s illegal to dig pits on federal land, and the hunter is required to remove all material used for blind construction after the hunt.

In addition to chukar, grey partridge and pheasants, which are not native to the USA, Idaho presents a great opportunity to hunt America’s native birds – dusky (blue) grouse, wood grouse, sage grouse and turkeys.

Book your hunt in Idaho now!

“This is not your average wall tent hunt. We take the traditional “Drop Camp” to the next level. We can offer guaranteed outfitter allocated elk tags as well an unlimited late season mule deer draw. Arrive at our trailhead and we will take it from there. Our experienced guides will load your gear onto mules and take you into camp via horseback. At the end of your hunt, we will be there with the mules and horses necessary to bring you and your harvest back home safely.”

“Our Elk hunts are free-range hunts in rugged terrain and will require clients to hike to prime Elk habitat. Our hunting area is not as rugged or steep as Montana or Colorado, but we do recommend clients are capable of hiking a few miles a day to have a successful Elk hunt. Elk hunting tags for our area are over-the-counter”

“4 nights, 3 days guided hunting for the trifecta of Idaho forest grouse; Ruffed, Spruce, and Blue. Stay your first and last nights at our luxurious lodge, the remaining nights will be spent in deluxe wilderness wall tent camps. Hunt from both foot and horseback over pointers in some of the most amazing upland country imaginable”

If these hunt descriptions make your mouth water and your eyes grow dim, check out Idaho hunting opportunities on However, bear in mind that non-resident hunting opportunities in Idaho may be more limited in the following years, as, to address the concerns about overcrowding in certain popular areas for big game hunting the Idaho Fish and Game will reduce opportunities for non-resident hunters to hunt deer and elk. The non-resident hunting fees will also be increased starting from the 2021 hunting season. With international hunting opportunities limited by COVID-19, many American hunters are seriously looking into domestic hunts, so wasting time is not recommended. But even aside from that, Idaho is a state where every hunter worthy of the name would like to go!


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