Ask MeatEater: Are Landowner Tags Unfair?

Ask MeatEater: Are Landowner Tags Unfair?

This is the time of year when hunters begin the process of securing licenses for everything from whitetails to pronghorn to elk. Many hunters have been applying for well over a decade through the various license draw systems used by different states, hoping to one day pocket a certain highly coveted, limited-entry tag. But other hunters skip this process altogether by taking advantage of licensing systems in some states which allow hunters to buy tags directly from private landowners.

Landowner tags are available in a number of the Western and Midwestern states. These are some of the most hotly debated license allocation systems in the country. Before we discuss why that’s the case, it’s important to understand what landowners tags actually are.

Science and Reasoning
Landowner tags are big game permits granted to private property owners by state agencies as a way to reward them for providing valuable habitat for state-managed, publicly-owned wildlife—as well as to reduce hunting pressure on public lands. Eligibility requirements vary by states, but the systems are usually based on minimum total acreage, game species that use the property and wildlife habitat quality. The number of tags a landowner is eligible to receive is usually related to the amount of acreage they own. More land generally equals more tags.

Each state that offers landowner tags has a different way of distributing them. In Nebraska, as long as minimum requirements are met, landowners are automatically eligible to receive tags for some game animals. In other states like Colorado, landowners must go through an application and draw process in which they compete with other landowners for a limited number of tags. These tags are only available in a separate landowner pool. As much as 15 percent of the total number of big game tags are reserved for landowners in some states.

Just as there are different allocation systems, there are also several types of landowner tags. Illinois, Kansas and Wyoming issue non-transferrable tags, which can only be used by the landowner or family members. In other states, hunters other than the landowner have access to these tags. In Montana, 2000 deer licenses are reserved for non-resident hunters sponsored by Montana landowners to hunt on the sponsor’s land.

These examples seem to be reasonable ways to compensate private landowners for setting aside at least some of their properties as wildlife habitat.

It’s a fair trade.

In much of the country, the percentage of private property far outweighs public lands. Even in Western states, where the percentage of public lands is much higher, private lands often contain critical wildlife habitat.

Ethics of Paying
However, other types of landowner tags are surrounded by controversy. States such as Utah, Colorado and New Mexico allow landowners to sell transferrable tag vouchers to any hunter for whatever price they are willing to pay. There are even services that advertise and sell landowner tags online.

Some of these landowner tags allow hunting in high demand, limited-entry areas. Tags for trophy deer, elk or pronghorn in these units could take a lifetime to draw through the regular application process. These tags regularly sell for prices well into the tens of thousands of dollars. Even in limited-draw units with less demand, vouchers are commonly sold for grossly inflated prices compared to regular state-issued licenses.

It begs the question of whether some private landowners should be able to profit off of a publicly owned resource that the state pays to manage and maintain. This seems to subvert the American notions of wildlife as a public trust resource, democratic hunting opportunity and fair and equitable tag distribution. There is a case to be made that the private sale of tags to the highest bidder falls more in line with the European tradition of moneyed aristocracy controlling all hunting opportunity.

A second controversy centers around exactly where a hunter holding a landowner tag can legally hunt. Some landowner tags are valid only on the landowner’s private property. In New Mexico, they’re called “ranch tags.”

The more hotly debated type of landowner vouchers are “unit-wide tags.” A hunter who has purchased one of these tags can hunt not only on the landowner’s property, but on all public lands within the unit where the property lies. Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada all issue unit-wide landowner tags. In Nevada, where the best deer, elk and pronghorn tags are extremely difficult to obtain through the regular draw, there’s no limit to the number of landowner tags a hunter can purchase in a single hunting season.

Grey Areas
So, should a hunter who purchased a tag that was sold for profit by a private landowner have access to hunt big game on public lands? This is an appropriate question in units where a hunter with a landowner tag is able to compete with hunters who have applied for many years in the regular draw in order to have the opportunity to hunt those public lands.

Other than the original cost of the license paid to the state by the landowner, none of the money a landowner makes through the private sale of a tag vouchers goes towards wildlife management and conservation on those public lands.

Although public and private lands boundaries can affect the total number of big game tags issued for a given area, wildlife biologists set annual quotas based largely on current populations and future management objectives, not whose property those animals live on. Those who oppose the sale of landowner vouchers believe these tags take away opportunities from the average hunter.

The idea is that by reserving a certain percentage of tags strictly for landowners, the number of tags available to everyone else who are forced to draw from the general pool is reduced.

It’s a valid concern. If a given unit has 100 bull elk tags available and 15 of those tags are reserved only for landowners, competition for the remaining tags is automatically increased to the point where draw odds are diminished.

In states where the sale of landowner tags is firmly entrenched, many hunters have spoken out against the system. Colorado recently made some changes in response to years of backlash. Formerly, all landowner vouchers were valid throughout entire units. Now they are split between private land-only tags and unit-wide tags. However, despite the changes in Colorado, it’s unlikely the practice of selling landowner tags to the highest bidder will ever be banned.

It’s hard to fault landowners who are trying to make a profit or hunters who are willing to pay premium prices. Controversial though it may be, the tag system does have some merit, but could admittedly use some improvement to better align with the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

Feature image via Spencer Neuharth.

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