California’s pronghorn antelope hunters are wrapping up their short seasons as California’s elk hunters are gearing up for theirs. The two groups of big game hunters are among the most tenacious – if not the luckiest – in California.
It can take many years – decades in some cases – of applying in the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) annual Big Game Drawing to accumulate the preference points needed to better the chances of securing a hunting tag for either species. Therein lies the tenacity. A precious few tags are awarded every year through random drawing. Therein lies the luck. In either case, the odds are long to secure one of the most coveted big game hunting tags California has to offer. Seasons and tags for pronghorn and elk both are extremely limited and highly regulated to provide a sustainable hunting opportunity while safeguarding the overall health of California’s herds. A tag itself is by no means any guarantee of success.
For elk and pronghorn hunters, nothing is likely to radically alter these tag-drawing dynamics. Still, changes are taking place within California’s pronghorn and elk populations that are impacting hunting opportunities for both species now and likely into the future.
California is home to three species of elk – tule, Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt – and CDW offers hunting opportunities for all three. Roosevelt elk and Rocky Mountain elk populations are growing in the far north and northwestern parts of the state, expanding their range in some cases, and coming into conflict more often with farmers, ranchers and other private property owners.
Expanded elk hunting opportunities are readily apparent in CDFW’s SHARE Program, more so than in CDFW’s annual Big Game Drawing, which tends to make incremental changes in tag allocations from season to season.
CDFW’s SHARE Program didn’t exist before 2010 and only began offering elk hunts in 2015. For the 2022 season, the SHARE Program is providing nearly 100 different elk hunting opportunities for all three of California’s elk species, including 47 bull tags, 41 antlerless tags and five tags reserved for Junior Hunting License holders. The SHARE elk hunts this season are taking place in six counties with robust herds: Colusa, Del Norte, Humboldt, Mendocino, Shasta and Siskiyou.
SHARE provides public hunting opportunities on private property in cooperation with participating landowners. Elk hunting opportunities have expanded exponentially along with growing herds and increasing conflicts.
SHARE Program elk hunts are awarded through a random drawing, separately and independently from the Big Game Drawing. No preference points apply so first-time applicants share the same odds of winning a hunt as those who have applied since the program’s inception. SHARE Program elk hunts are offered once the Big Game Drawing is complete. That allows unsuccessful Big Game Drawing applicants another opportunity to try for an elk tag.
Beyond the expanded elk hunting opportunities, CDFW scientists have witnessed Rocky Mountain elk populations growing in the north state over the past decade and expanding their range to the south where they haven’t been seen before.
Three reproducing Rocky Mountain elk herds are now confirmed in Plumas and Sierra counties with elk also documented having visited El Dorado County. These animals exist outside of regulated hunting zones and are off-limits to elk hunters. CDFW environmental scientists are currently seeking funding to better study these populations, which could lead to hunting opportunities in the future.
Pronghorn antelope also have expanded south over the past 10 years. Two herds have been confirmed in Plumas and Sierra counties, outside of legal hunting zones and off-limits to hunters, but nonetheless exciting to hunters, scientists and other fans of the iconic Western species.
Within their historic habitat in the far northeastern corner of California, pronghorn populations are shrinking and their habitat diminishing. The number of available pronghorn tags have been reduced as a result.
The sagebrush flats in Modoc and Lassen counties, home to the renowned and still highly desirable Likely Tables and Lassen County hunts, are being infiltrated by water-consuming juniper trees and non-native grasses, which are pushing out the native sagebrush. These lands are also being impacted by more frequent wildfires and growing populations of feral horses and burros. Not only do pronghorn eat sagebrush, they depend on the wide-open sagebrush landscape to spot danger at long distances with their tremendous eyesight.
While they are native, juniper trees have encroached these lands. They provide cover for predators and suck water resources from the landscape, making it more vulnerable to wildfire. More frequent wildfires burn native sagebrush and bitterbrush and allow nonnative cheatgrass and medusahead to move in. Overpopulations of feral horses and other non-native ungulates can degrade water sources needed by pronghorn and other wildlife and trample and over-graze sensitive habitat. CDFW is pursuing funding to more thoroughly study these various landscape impacts and changes occurring within traditional pronghorn habitat.
California pronghorn hunters or would-be pronghorn hunters have already felt the impact.
Back in 2020, CDFW offered 45 tags each for the two Likely Tables general buck hunt periods in Modoc County. Once California’s most coveted and consistent zone for pronghorns with hunter success hovering around 90 percent, tag allocations were cut to 25 each for the two hunt periods in the 2021 and 2022 seasons after hunter success in the 2020 season fell to 62 percent (Period 1) and 34 percent (Period 2). Similarly in 2017, tag allocations were cut in the two Lassen County pronghorn hunts from 45 tags each to 35 tags each. No pronghorn hunts are offered through the SHARE Program.