In many states, the application period for big game licenses is open or will start soon. This means that you’re almost certainly going to start hearing debates about the relative merits and drawbacks of bonus points, preference points and “pure” lottery draw systems. No matter where you live and hunt, these big game licensing systems affect what tags end up in your pocket. It pays to understand them.
Big game tags are allocated to hunters according to the rules of supply and demand. The number of animals that can be removed from a population without harming the resource establishes the number of licenses available for any given species. Wildlife biologists and state game agencies pay close attention to population trends and hunter success rates in order to determine how licenses are distributed to the public.
Oftentimes, particularly with whitetail deer in the eastern half of the country, the supply of deer is more than adequate to accommodate the total demand of hunters. In those cases, tags are issued over-the-counter. You simply walk into a sporting goods store or any other license vendor and buy the license. Sometimes there is a cap on the total number of over-the-counter-tags that can be sold. This is something that you commonly see with whitetail doe tags. Game management agencies generally sell these tags on a first-come, first-serve basis until the tags are sold out.
Now let’s look at a different tag allocation system. Consider a game management unit in Colorado with a mule deer population of 2000 animals. Managers and biologists determine that herd can support the harvest of 100 bucks without negatively impacting herd numbers. With a historic hunter success rate of fifty percent in that unit, managers can safely issue 200 mule deer buck tags and stay within their target harvest goals.
So what happens when demand exceeds supply and there are 500 hunters who want to hunt mule deer in a unit that only has 100 available tags? Here is where the tag allocation will differ from over-the-counter system. This is when lottery draws come into play.
There are three basic lottery draw systems used to issue tags: Pure lotteries, bonus point systems, and preference point systems. A “pure” lottery is exactly what the name suggests. Every hunter who applies for a tag has the exact same odds of drawing it, regardless of whether it is their twentieth attempt or their second attempt. For example, if there are 100 bull elk tags for resident hunters in a particular unit of New Mexico, and a thousand resident hunters apply, then each applicant has a 10% chance of drawing that tag. Alaska, Idaho, and New Mexico all use pure lottery system for issuing big game tags.
The bonus point system is one of two ways that states reward repeat customers. Each year, a hunter who is unsuccessful in drawing a tag for a particular species receives a bonus point for that animal. Then, the next year, that hunter’s name goes into the drawing an additional time for each bonus point they’ve accumulated. For example, a hunter with one bonus point gets two chances to draw a tag. The state of Montana ups a hunter’s odds of drawing by squaring bonus points; so if you’ve accumulated 4 bonus points, your name goes into the hat an additional sixteen times. Arizona, Montana, Nevada, and Maine are some examples of state’s that use bonus point systems for some tag allocations. It’s important to note that statistically, under a bonus points system, all hunters that apply, even first-time applicants without bonus points, have at least a small chance to draw a tag. Once a hunter draws a first-choice tag, all bonus points return to zero.
Preference points are also used to reward repeat big game license applicants. Each year,unsuccessful applicants gain a preference point. The biggest difference between bonus points and preference points is that preference points systems automatically allocate all or some of the available tags to those hunters who have accumulated the most points. If there are more hunters with preference points that exceed the threshold than the number of available tags, license allocation would start with the highest point holders first and work downward. Unlike a bonus points system, hunters who do not meet a minimum points threshold have no statistical chance of drawing a tag. But, like the bonus point system, a hunter’s preference points return to zero once a first-choice tag is drawn. California, Colorado, Wyoming and Pennsylvania are examples of states that use the preference points system to issue some big game tags.
Before we get into the pros and cons of each lottery draw system, and how these systems might be working for or against you, hunters need to understand the reality of these licensing structures is more complicated than the above definitions might indicate. Some states might use different systems for different species, or even different systems for the same species depending on the particular game management unit. Colorado issues over-counter either-sex archery elk tags good for most of the state while some select units offer draw-only bull tags. In Michigan, deer tags are issued over-the-counter while bear and elk tags are allocated through a bonus point lottery draw.
Sometimes these drawing systems are combined. If one hundred maximum preference point holders are all vying for one California bighorn sheep tag, the draw would revert to a pure lottery between those maximum point holders. Colorado uses a combination of preference points and bonus points to issue tags for moose, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats.
There is also the issue of residency. Residents are generally given top priority when it comes to the allocation of a state’s of big game tags. Montana caps the number of non-resident big game tags at ten percent of the total available tags. Once the non-resident cap is met, all other non-resident applicants are pulled from the draw and the remaining tags go to resident hunters. Colorado issues tags more liberally, allowing up to 35% of the tag pool to be issued to non-residents. But, in some states, certain tags might only be available to resident hunters, or they might only be available to hunters who’ve secured the services of a licensed guide. Wyoming has some big game tags available to residents over the counter, but non-residents must compete for those same tags through various lottery draw systems.
Each of these systems has supporters and detractors. MeatEater Host, Steven Rinella, says he can see both sides. “On the one hand, it seems ridiculous that you’d have to wait twenty years to have any sort of reasonable chance at drawing some of the more coveted tags in the West. But on the other hand, it’s painful to see some newcomer get a tag on his first draw when other folks have been dutifully putting forward their dollars for a couple of decades or more”.
Ryan Callaghan, from First Lite is less ambiguous. He prefers the pure lottery system, which is used in his home state of Idaho. “Everyone has the same chance every year. If this was the method of draw state to state, I believe it would displace at least some emphasis that hunters put on a handful of well-known trophy units”. Each hunting season offers every hunter the same possibilities under a pure lottery system, even if they’re applying for a once-in-a-lifetime bighorn ram or bull moose tag.
But, there are hunters who’ve spent years accruing bonus and preference points in various states and they tend to favor these systems. They’ve put in the time and money to guarantee the best odds of drawing a tag for a high quality hunt that offers plenty of public access, high numbers of the target species, and less competition from other hunters.
MeatEater Producer Janis Putelis falls into this camp. “I’m a blue collar hunter, so preference points are how I’m able to buy a better hunt. If I could afford it, I’d pay to hunt giant private ranches for trophy elk every year. But I can’t, so I invest a few hundred dollars in points over the course of 4-5 years and hopefully buy myself a higher quality public land hunt.” Wyoming is Janis’s top choice for a nonresident hunter to build preference points because hunters can buy points without applying for a license. In just a few years, a hunter with zero points can guarantee a high quality elk, deer or antelope hunt.
Still, no one would argue that any single draw system is perfect. Bonus point systems are meant to reward the long-term dedication of hunters applying for a specific tag but maximum point holders are hardly guaranteed to draw. Your odds do go up with each additional point but, since the bonus point system is also a lottery, luck may not be in your favor. Preference points at least provide a hunter with a visible, certain path to securing a license.
Or, at least, it seems certain. With the preference point system, there’s something known as point creep. Hunters used to be able to determine how many years it would take to draw any given tag based on the number of points they currently have and the minimum number of points required to draw that tag. Because state fish and game agencies publish unit-specific draw odds and minimum point requirements, hunters could reliably plan a future hunt. But as demand for limited draw hunts increases, point creep makes predicting when you’ll draw some tags much harder because those minimum point thresholds do not remain static. Like many hunters, I enjoy chasing big, high-country mule deer bucks. So I began planning a future hunt in Wyoming’s famed Region G based on the minimum points needed to draw that tag. Since then, however, the minimum point requirement has doubled – that is, the threshold increases faster than you can accumulate points. It is unlikely that I’ll catch up. I might just need to make a new, more realistic plan for Wyoming mule deer in another unit.
A hunter who has been acquiring points for many years has also been sacrificing hunting opportunities for the same amount of time. In some cases, that may mean not hunting for a certain species at all or only hunting units with low success rates. There’s also the consideration that building points is a significant investment in money as well as time. Even if a hunter is only applying for a point, it is often necessary to purchase a hunting license and a pay a separate fee for a point. This investment can become substantial over a period of several years.
Complications such as long-term financial investments and limited hunting opportunities cause some people to simply give up on points-based draws. Ryan Callaghan is one of them. “I personally have quit applying in many states due to their point systems,” says Callaghan. “I love to hunt. I hate math. Specifically, I don’t like associating the combination of preference point accumulation with the age I am going to be when, in theory, I draw that tag. I’ve been part of many conversations that contain some version of ‘I’ll be 74 years old when I draw my Wyoming bighorn tag.’ ”
Fortunately, there are states that address point creep by giving first-time applicants at least some chance of drawing a tag. A small percentage of every tag pool in Wyoming is dedicated to a separate pure lottery draw without minimum point thresholds. In Colorado, hybrid draws for some high-demand tags that require ten or more preference points have a small, separate pool for hunters with five or more points. It’s complicated, but it adds a little more opportunity.
While the focus of points systems tends to be aimed at drawing a “trophy tag,” it’s important for hunters to understand that acquiring points doesn’t always have to be about record-breaking animals. Janis Putelis feels accruing points is a good way for hunters to experience unexplored country. He says, “Most likely, that unit that took some points to draw will be new country to you. Hunting new country is always an adventure and adventure is good for the soul. I like the unknown, the challenges and victories of hunting new public ground foreign to my eyes”.
In units that require a couple points to draw, it’s likely you’ll see fewer hunters and more animals. And even if a trophy animal isn’t your goal, preference points are a great way to access units with plenty of public land where unpressured animals can be hunted far from roads and trails. Just take a look at Colorado and Wyoming antelope tags. In the eastern portion of those states, antelope tags are easy to come by but large amounts of private land make hunting access very difficult. In the western half of Colorado and Wyoming, there’s plenty of public land but fewer tags available. Building up some points allows a hunter to chase antelope all over those vast expanses of accessible ground without the aggravation of knocking on doors to beg or buy hunting permission.
Whether you’re after a once-in-a-lifetime trophy or a backcountry wilderness experience, to ensure the best hunting opportunities, all hunters need to develop a plan when it comes to drawing tags. Ideally, a hunter needs a short term plan and long term goals. There are ways to hunt every year and still work towards pulling your dream tag in the future. A hunter just needs to be flexible when it’s time to apply for licenses.
Some very dedicated hunters try to increase their chances of securing a high-quality hunt by applying in as many states as possible. This type of tag application plan can require a significant invest in license fees and also some flexibility for travel to distant states on relatively short notice. And, gaining the necessary familiarity with each state’s complex big game licensing stems can be challenging.
Steven Rinella doesn’t let the different lottery and points systems get in the way of applying throughout the country. “Every year, I do an app for all big game hunts in Idaho, New Mexico and Alaska where they don’t use preference points. I also hit those preference point hellholes like Arizona and Utah. That way I’ve got a rounded portfolio. I’m playing the careful long game at the same time I’m throwing up some wild Hail Mary’s.” If a wide range of hunting opportunities is important and if you can manage it, Steve’s flexible approach might be the best strategy.
Cody Lujan, a Colorado and New Mexico hunter, has a detailed plan for gaming different lottery systems. Some high-quality hunts fall through the cracks because they are not well-known to the general public as noteworthy units. Hunters who’ve accumulated a pile of points aren’t going to blow them on a unit that isn’t regarded as top shelf, which means a lot of great “sleeper” units don’t get as many applicants. “In Colorado,” says Lujan, “many hunters are obsessed with drawing a tag for a single trophy unit. It’s possible to capitalize on that by identifying and applying for underrated tags that require minimal points. With point hoarders camped out in highly competitive application pools, you can regularly treat yourself to some great hunts.” Lottery draws for the best units offer very slim odds of pulling a coveted trophy tag, but New Mexico’s lottery gives a hunter plenty of options. Lujan says, “I apply for long-shot dream tags as my first and second choices, and then lock in a hunt by applying for an easily drawn tag for my third choice. I definitely see fewer animals on third choice tags, but I hunt hard and manage to put meat in the freezer.”
As for me, I’ve developed a strategy which maximizes my time in the field each fall. With Colorado’s maximum point tags well out of reach, I build up a couple points to secure a hunt in a unit that I know from personal experience to have good potential. After those points are burned, I’ll apply for a preference point as my first choice and then hunt on second choice tags for a couple years as I rebuild my supply of points. (In many states, your preference points are only used if you draw your first choice hunt; you retain your points if you’re awarded a second or third choice hunt) For example, I’ll hunt cow elk for a couple years, adding points for bull elk at the same time that I’m out there hunting. After all, I’d rather hunt for a cow every year than not hunt at all while I wait to draw a specific unit for a bull.
Leftover tags are another way I’m able to add hunts to my calendar. These unsold big game tags go on sale after the draw process is over. Just about every year, I end up snagging a killer tag off of a leftover list. Each fall, I also make sure to buy over-the counter tags in nearby states like Nebraska. And, to maintain at least a chance of securing a special tag, I invest a few dollars each year in a couple of different state Raffles. These “Super Raffles” are held in many states and for a minimal entry fee, a hunter has a chance to win coveted big game tags. The odds are slim but even if you don’t win, the money raised goes towards conservation. Meanwhile, in Wyoming, I continue to work towards dream tags for elk, mule deer, and antelope by purchasing preference points each year.
Love them or hate them, these tag drawing systems directly affect big game hunters throughout the United States. Don’t be the kind of lazy hunter that becomes disgusted with the entire process, blames “the system,” and gives up. Learn to appreciate the different lottery and points systems and the benefits that each provides. Carefully study the websites of the fish and game agencies in the states where you want to hunt. There you’ll find information about animal populations, public land access, hunter success rates, draw odds, and minimum point thresholds. Then use this information to create more and better hunting opportunities. You can consistently fill the freezer with a little research and a lot of hard work.
Brody Henderson is a hunter, fly fishing guide, writer, wilderness production assistant for the MeatEater television show and MeatEater‘s editorial contributor