Buying & Selling

What to Look for When Buying Elk Property

What to Look for When Buying Elk Property

You’re at that point in your life where you can afford a piece of recreational property. Finally. It’s a dream and, for you, that property is gonna be elk property. Now, how do you lay that money down on the best, richest possible slice of land for elk? 

There are the hunting tags to consider. Are they over the counter or is it a lottery? What units are the most popular units in the state you’re looking at for land ownership? And, historically, where have some of the biggest bulls been taken? 

All these questions should be vetted if you’re looking to do a thorough scouting job on the ground you’re planning to own. And, often, the prospective land buyer is on top of these questions. So dialed in, in fact, it’s easy to neglect making a thorough assessment of the property itself. Yet sometimes, in order to properly access something, you have to start from the beginning. Ground zero. 

What is considered the absolute best elk habitat? What land features are important when buying elk property? What characteristics offer sanctuary for these animals, and how abundant and diverse are the natural food sources? When you look at the property, do you have a vision of how it might be enhanced? Depending on how thorough you hope to be, the answers are endless. Here are a few to get you started, along with resource links to help you go further into accessing the quality of the elk habitat you’re looking to purchase. 

A Property’s Understory Versus Mature Forestland 

The balance between good understory and mature forestland is vital to an elk herd’s survival. Understory offers food sources, while mature timber provides sanctuary. Without even stepping foot on a property, some assessments can be made thanks to aerial and topographic maps. Real estate sites specializing in hunting and recreational properties provide the detail needed to consider property features and compare and contrast acreage. 

So, if you’re new to buying hunting property, this stuff isn’t hard to get your hands on. Take this elk property in northwest Colorado. It’s currently listed on Whitetail Properties and, based on the agent’s description paired with the listing’s maps, a prospective buyer can vet property features — including the amount of understory and mature forestland — against what’s known to be ideal elk habitat. 

This elk property is currently listed on Whitetail Properties. Photos of the property, along with aerial and topography images, are provided for each listing making it easier for buyers to pinpoint habitat features. 

In forestry, understory is a word used to collectively refer to grasses, forbs and shrubs. It’s the low-to-the-ground stuff that’s often under the canopy of trees in the woods. Of course, in mature forestland, little sunlight passes through the canopy so the understory will be limited in these areas. But younger forests have undeveloped or porous canopies, allowing for growth, or understory. However, take heart if the land isn’t perfect. Maybe the balance between mature forests and understory isn’t what you’d hoped for, but both features are there. Elk are adaptable, more so than deer, and they are considered foraging generalist, which means they aren’t as selective as other big game and will make it less tedious when elk hunters shop for property to purchase and hunt. 

In a piece published by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the writer Chad J. Bishop, PhD offers this rule of thumb. “Elk utilize the mature forest primarily for cover and move into the openings to forage, typically during morning and evening. As a general rule, habitat types with greater understory will be preferred by elk.”

Both are important, but the more food the better. And that’s what elk can expect with rich offerings of understory. 

How to Make Smaller Acreage Work For Elk 

Elk occupy a huge home range — typically from 2,500 to 10,000 acres for Rocky Mountain Elk. But if you’re like most Americans, and can’t afford thousands of acres of land, don’t sweat it. There are ways smaller landowners can work around this, and still feel confident their property will attract and hold elk. 

A paper published in part by the Wildlife Habitat Management Institute cites a small elk herd in Oklahoma as an example of these animals’ adaptability, and how small parcels of land can get the job done. Smaller herds require considerably less acreage and have a much smaller home range than, say, a larger herd in Montana. So if smaller tracts of elk property are managed effectively and adjoining properties feature habitat that’s also conducive to elk, herds will rely on your property regardless of size. 

For an elk hunter looking to invest in elk property for hunting, neighbors are critical. Working with other landowners may be the key that turns the lock through cooperatively maintaining and improving land features with elk in mind. There are two big-picture tips the Wildlife Habitat Management Institute emphasizes for cooperative land management. There are others, but these two stand out: 

  1. Interspersion of elk habitat. The Ideal interspersion of elk habitat consists of early, mid-, and late-successional forested land within close proximity (400 yards) to isolated open areas free from human disturbance. These stages of forestland relate back to the purpose of understory and mature forests. Elk rely on the former, which thrives in open space and young forestland while relying on the later for protection and shelter.
  2. Security Cover. Where feasible, landowners should maintain at least 40 percent of their property as security cover. 

Target Adjacent Public Land

Another factor when considering small parcels of elk property and adjoining neighbors is public land. A neighboring tract of land, in an ideal world, would be a vast, seemingly endless acreage of undeveloped federal or state property. If we go back and take a look at the property listing in Colorado as an example, you’ll note it’s virtually surrounded by public land — the Routt National Forest. 

Public land in the U.S. includes national forest land, wildlife management areas and wildlife refuges. It’s a lot, and it’s not easy to keep up with what can be hunted and what can’t. But here’s what simplifies things: only four agencies manage the bulk of all public land in the U.S. that’s open range and suitable for hunting. Identify what’s available by starting with these four federal agencies. Then drill down into what property is situated in what regions of your targeted purchase area: 

  1. Bureau of Land Management 
  2. U.S. Forest Service 
  3. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 
  4. National Park Service 

The take-home message is this: while it’s arguable not easy to find a good piece of elk property adjacent to big tracts of undeveloped federal land, it’s very possible. In states known for their elk hunting, public land accounts for large percentages of total landmass: 29 percent of Montana is publicly owned, Colorado is 36 percent public, a whopping 61 percent of Idaho is owned by the federal government, while 48 percent of Wyoming’s landmass is public and New Mexico is 35 percent public. 


If you’d like more information on land features that attract and hold elk herds, check out the resources below: 

Fish and Wildlife Habitat Management Leaflet: Elk

What Exactly Is Early Successional Habitat? 

Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program 

Federal Land Ownership and Data 

Think Like an Elk: Understanding Elk Habitat 

Buying Elk Property? 

If you’re interested in viewing properties suited for elk hunting, check out these listings from Whitetail Properties.

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