Hunting is a highly regulated activity in the United States. Wildlife is managed at the state level, with state game agencies, supported by license sales, deciding who gets to hunt what, where and how.
These rules and regulations can and do change annually and are published in a print booklet as well as online. Each state’s regulations are different, and it’s the hunter’s responsibility to study the regs until you know the applicable laws inside and out.
Before we discuss tags and licenses, it’s important to clear up a few terms. Generally speaking, a hunting license enables a hunter to engage in the practice of hunting in a given state. For small game, a small-game hunting license is typically all you need. But for big game, you often need to have a big game hunting license as well as permits or tags for the specific animals that you intend to hunt. Think of it like an amusement park that charges you an entrance fee to get through the gate and then also a fee for each individual ride.
Oftentimes, tags or permits come in the form of carcass tags, literally a tag that is affixed to the carcass of an animal once it is killed. A tag might come with a host of legal requirements, it might be valid for only a male or female of the species, it might have specific dates for which it is valid, it might include weapons restrictions, such as archery-only or muzzleloader-only and a specific tag might become unavailable for purchase before the hunting season begins. This prevents a hunter from killing an animal out of convenience and then attempting to purchase the tag as an afterthought. For these reasons, and many more, it’s imperative that you study your state’s hunting regulations booklet before you head into the woods.
Residents and Non-Residents
All states divide hunters into two classes when it comes to the sale of hunting licenses and tags, residents and non-residents. Typically, states charge non-resident hunters much higher licensing fees than residents. In Colorado, for example, the cost of a resident license for bull elk is less than fifty dollars. A non-resident license for bull elk costs about six times as much. In Wisconsin, a resident can get an over-the-counter deer license that allows them to kill multiple whitetail deer for just $24. A non-resident will pay about $160 for the same privileges.
Typically, residents enjoy more hunting opportunities in their state than do non-residents. In Arizona, for example, there is a 10-percent cap on how many limited-draw licenses can go to the non-resident pool of applicants. In the case of bighorn sheep, where only one tag is issued in some units, the application process is altogether closed to non-residents. In Alaska, there are several species that are entirely closed to non-resident hunters unless the individual is hunting with a registered guide or a family member of second-degree kindred who happens to be a legal resident of the state.
The most commonly purchased and widely available form of hunting tags are over-the-counter tags, otherwise known as OTC tags. These tags are issued for species which are abundant enough in a given state to withstand widespread harvest, for example, whitetail deer hunting is over-the-counter across the vast majority of the eastern United States. Over-the-counter licenses can usually be purchased pretty much anywhere, sporting goods stores, online vendors, fish and wildlife offices, even some gas stations. If you meet the legal age and hunter’s safety requirements, you can usually walk in and buy an over-the-counter tag and start hunting immediately.
Limited Availability or Draw Tags
A second classification of hunting tags are known as limited availability tags. These are for hunts where the state wants to cap the total number of people who can legally participate in a hunt. There are a variety of motivations for a state to limit the number of available tags for a given hunt, but it’s typically for one of two reasons, they want to produce “high quality” hunts with low competition and a greater likelihood of animals living long enough to achieve trophy-class size or demand for a tag outstrips the availability of the resource.
To allocate limited availability tags, state game agencies will use some type of lottery or drawing system. In greatly simplified terms, the names of all the interested hunters go into a hat and they pull out a few names and award those individuals a tag.
Your odds of drawing some limited availability tags might be well below 1%, while other limited availability tags might carry 100% success rates on years when the hunt is undersubscribed, that is when it turns out that there are fewer names in the hat than there are available tags. Because it’s possible to apply for a tag for many years without receiving it, a lot of states use preference point or bonus point systems to reward repeat customers and enhance their likelihood of drawing a tag after one or more unsuccessful attempts.
The Point System
Preference points and bonus points are a bit different, though the extent of the differences varies from state to state. In a typical preference point system, the people with the most points, called maximum point holders, will draw their tags first, while subsequent tags will be given to the people with the next highest amounts of points. Thus, higher point holders have preference.
Bonus points, which are also accrued annually, mean that your name goes into the hat that many more times each time you apply. For example, if Jay is applying for a tag for the first time, his name will only go into the hat once. But if Darr has been applying for that tag unsuccessfully for ten years, his name will be in the hat ten times. Keep in mind that this is a very rudimentary breakdown of the allocation process for limited availability tags.
Each state has its own nuances. For instance, Alaska, Idaho, and New Mexico do not currently offer bonus point or preference point systems; you’re starting from scratch each time you apply, which is good news for new applicants and bad news for old applicants. Other states do a sort of hybrid between preference points and bonus points, some number of available tags are allocated directly to maximum point holders similar to preference point system, while the remainder are allocated to the general application pool, similar to bonus point system. Again, this information should serve to drive home the point that you need to research your particular state’s tag allocation system well before the hunting season begins.
If you really want to get aggressive about understanding the world of big game tags and licenses, you can learn pretty much everything there is to know by subscribing to Eastman’s Hunting Journal or The Huntin’ Fool. Both publications feature sections that are entirely devoted to deciphering the limited license draws and the applications that go along with them. If you’re not in the mood to do the research yourself, you can hire a big game application service to help you select the proper hunts and do the paperwork for you. The Huntin’ Fool runs such a program, as does Cabela’s (800-755-TAGS).
Landowner tags are a third classification of big game tags, though they are generally relegated to hunters with hefty budgets. Basically, a landowner tag lets you buy a high-quality big game tag of the sort that would normally be given out only through a lottery.
The thinking behind landowner tags is that they incentivize landowners to be good stewards of the land, in exchange for the landowner providing crucial habitat for wildlife, often at the landowner’s expense, thanks to crop damage, the state awards them a quantity of big game tags commensurate with the quantity and quality of property that they own. The landowner can then sell the tags as he or she sees fit. Depending on the species and trophy quality of the animals in a given area, landowner tags might sell for anywhere from $500 to $15,000.
This is a controversial type of tag; many hunters believe that landowner tags subvert the democratic nature of our nation’s wildlife conservation model, which holds that wildlife is held in the public trust. Every tag that goes to a landowner, some folks say, is taken out of an already limited license pool in order to be bought by some high-roller who’s using his wealth to skirt around the lottery process. What makes it even worse, they say, is that many landowner tags are valid for all public lands in a given hunting unit, which means that the landowner’s tag isn’t even being used on the landowner’s property.
Others hold that private landowners provide an invaluable service to North America’s wildlife and that they should be rewarded financially in order to help prevent them from having to sell off their land to developers who’d bring along the inevitable scourge of suburban sprawl.
If you don’t like the sound of landowner tags, you’re going to hate the fourth classification of hunting tags: Governor’s tags. These tags usually carry extra privileges, such as expanded seasons or hunting zones, and they go to the highest bidder in an auction. How much money can such a tag go for?
In 2012, a hunter paid $160,000 for a governor’s tag enabling him to hunt mule deer on Utah’s Antelope Island. In 2013, the same hunter paid $310,000 for the same tag. In 2014, he paid $305,000. Before you get too filled with righteous indignation, consider that 90% of this hunter’s 3-year, $865,000 mule deer hunting budget goes to wildlife conservation, in this case, habitat improvements on Antelope Island. But again, governor’s tags do take hunting opportunities away from the common man and put them into the hands of the wealthy. Whether that’s justified or not is open to discussion.
The Toughest Tags
Here’s a rundown of some of the hardest lottery tags to draw. These tags are coveted because either the experience cannot be replicated anywhere else or the available animals are of outstanding size.
- Mule deer in Utah’s Henry Mountains. Big, beautiful mule deer abound in this mountain range, but you can expect to apply for 15 years before drawing the tag.
- Elk in Arizona’s Unit 9. An archery hunter’s dream: gigantic bulls; plenty of bugling; minimal hunting pressure. Plan to apply for about 20 years before you hit this tag.
- Bighorn sheep in Montana’s Unit 680. This rugged and beautiful country is a sheep hunter’s dream; it’s where you go for world record rams. Even if you apply for your entire life, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever draw the tag.
- Buffalo along Alaska’s Copper River. It’s an adventure just getting in and out of this area, not to mention doing it with a thousand pounds of meat and hide. Alaska does not do bonus points, so your odds of drawing this tag are in the single digits every year. If you do get lucky and draw it, you better make the best of the opportunity. It’s literally a once-in-a-lifetime hunt, as tag-holders are ineligible for future drawings.
- Eastern Moose in Maine’s north woods. Your best opportunity to hunt the eastern subspecies of moose in the Lower-48. The Maine moose population has grown from 7,000 in 1950 to 20,000 in 1990, and now hovers between 60,000 and 70,000.While Moose numbers rise, applicants are currently trending down, making it a great time to jump in the pool. For first-time non-resident applicants who buy only one chance, the success rate is 0.2 percent. But Maine does employ a bonus point system, bettering your odds yearly; it also allows non-residents to purchase unlimited chances in bundles of ten at $55 each.Since non-residents and residents are not applying for the same tags, this does not affect Maine resident odds. Buying these extra chances can greatly improve odds, though doing so is hardly essential to winning a permit.