Elk Response to Disturbance
It is well-documented that elk alter their movement patterns in response to human-related disturbance. For example, a number of studies have demonstrated that elk tend to avoid roads2, 3, 4, 5 and that their survival declines as density of roads increases because of increasing vulnerability2, 6, 7, 8. During hunting season, elk will often seek out refuge on private lands or national parks where there is little or no hunting. In the White River National Forest in northwest Colorado, the opening day of archery season caused elk to move from public to private land9,10. Similarly, in the San Luis Valley in south-central Colorado, elk moved into Great Sand Dunes National Park in response to the opening of archery season11. Opening of rifle seasons are thought to cause additional shifts by elk away from public land to secure areas. Generally speaking, elk are adept at seeking out refuges to escape hunting pressure and will move many miles to do so.
The above information explains why hunters with access to private lands that are managed for limited hunting typically do well. Likewise, hunters gaining access to limited-harvest units by using preference points also fare well. However, most hunters do not have access to these optimal hunting situations during most years. For public-land hunters in over-the-counter units, efforts to get away from roads generally pay off. There tend to be fewer hunters and more elk in more remote areas. It is also helpful to obtain maps showing secondary roads, terrain features and public/private land ownership to evaluate where elk may be more likely to move in response to disturbance. If you lack the ability to hunt in remote areas, getting off the road even a short distance and still-hunting on foot can greatly increase your opportunities. It is not uncommon for animals to bed down in thick cover near roads and not be disturbed, even as hunters pass by on the road throughout the day. When hunting roaded areas, it is often helpful to identify patches of heavy cover where it appears elk might bed down to avoid being disturbed.