The U.S. hunting population fell by about 1 million between 2006 and 2016, but the nation’s relentless shedding of baby-boomer hunters the past decade has done nothing to boost the odds of drawing coveted elk or muley tags in Western states.

And make no mistake: We aren’t even discussing preference points, compounded preference points, preference-point creep, the gambler’s fallacy, or Matt Rinella’s formula for calculating draw-odds probabilities as explained in MeatEater podcast episode No. 125.

We also aren’t analyzing the complexities of managing big-game animals to sustain healthy, viable herds on Western landscapes, which range from arid plains to foggy coastal mountains. Suffice to say, elk, mule deer and pronghorn don’t adapt to development, mineral extractions and urbanized backyards with the ease of the East’s white-tailed deer. Therefore, the West’s wildlife agencies are generally miserly with tag allotments, which means the West routinely has more applicants than big-game tags.

And for added complications, wildlife agencies must balance all those habitat-based challenges with increasingly varied hunting expectations and opportunities. Colorado, for example, needs 1,028 “hunt codes” and a nearly 1,000-page report to specify its tag allocations for this fall’s elk hunts, which range from backyard cow culls and over-the-counter bull tags to tightly controlled backcountry hunts for mature bulls.

Joe Lewandowski, the Parks and Wildlife Department’s public information officer in southwestern Colorado, said the agency strives to provide hunting options, given that 60 percent of the state is public property. Even though it offers over-the-counter tags for two of its four elk rifle seasons, its limited-entry hunts always have more applicants than tags.

“That reflects our commitment to providing as many opportunities as possible,” Lewandowski said. “You can hunt elk here every year while also putting in for preference points, and eventually get a different high-quality experience.”

All those factors cause annual fluctuations in tag numbers, but they don’t explain why the West’s big-game tag draws remain impervious to the nation’s long-term decline in hunting participation. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated in 2006 that about 12.5 million Americans 16 and older hunted, but the number sank to 11.5 million in 2016, or roughly 5 percent of the nation’s population. The same study in 1980 estimated 17.5 million Americans 16 and older hunted, or 7 percent of the U.S. population. The agency has conducted this survey every five years since 1955.

East-West Divide
So why do Western big-game tags remain difficult to draw? At risk of simplifying things, the answer involves two key factors. The East generates – and loses – the bulk of the U.S. hunting population. Meanwhile, the West stubbornly holds onto its hunters while attracting increasingly more nonresidents – arguably the East’s most persistent hunters.

Greg Lemon, the communications administrator for Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said those are important factors.

“We’re not seeing a dip in license sales in Montana, and I think the rest of the West is similar,” he said. “Hunting is still a big part of the culture out here. Also, only a percentage of our tags can go to out-of-state folks. And so with the fact we’re getting more out-of-state interest, our special tags are harder to draw, though not as hard as in some states.”

And, yes, the decline in the nation’s hunting population is evident in license sales, including top whitetail states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, New York and Minnesota. Consider these gun-deer license sales to resident hunters, based on the most recent data available from those states:

  • Pennsylvania: Down 6 percent from 2012 (760,462) to 2016 (715,647).
  • Michigan: Down 6.4 percent from 2012 (623,158) to 2016 (583,285).
  • Wisconsin: Down 7.6 percent from 2012 (600,363) to 2017 (554,937).
  • New York: Down 1 percent from 2012 (533,624) to 2017 (528,327).
  • Minnesota: Down 6 percent from 2012 (391,822) to 2017 (368,407).

Next, consider how well this sampling of Western states retained resident hunters and attracted more resident applications for elk and mule deer tags, based on the most recent data available from those states:

  • Colorado elk applications: Up 1.6 percent from 2015 (238,643) to 2018 (242,490).
  • Colorado deer applications: Up 4.3 percent from 2015 (236,004) to 2018 (246,256).
  • Montana total elk and deer licenses sold: Up 4.7 percent from 2012 (222,548) to 2016 (233,023).
  • Wyoming total elk and deer licenses sold: Up 5.5 percent from 2012 (110,973) to 2016 (117,127).
  • Arizona elk applications: Up 24 percent from 2012 (79,042) to 2018 (98,339).

Further, nonresident applications and license sales in those same Western states grew even faster overall, based on the most recent data available from those states:

  • Colorado nonresident elk applications: Up 23.5 percent from 2015 (99,506) to 2018 (122,918).
  • Colorado nonresident deer applications: Up 36 percent from 2015 (77,401) to 2018 (105,541).
  • Montana total nonresident elk and deer licenses sold: Up 24 percent from 2012 (30,653) to 2018 (38,114).
  • Wyoming total nonresident elk and deer licenses sold: Down 1.3 percent from 2012 (38,060) to 2016 (37,568).
  • Arizona nonresident elk applications: Up 63.4 percent from 2012 (10,494) to 2018 (17,151).

Nonresident Loyalties
Why such loyalty by nonresidents? It’s difficult to quantify passion, but it’s logical to assume nonresidents who routinely fly or drive thousands of miles and willingly pay over 10 times more than residents for Western big-game licenses aren’t casual hunters. They choose their buddies based on who’ll join them for “the hunt of a lifetime” every autumn.

In fact, when analyzing nonresident license-buying data for 10 well-known hunting states – New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and Arizona – all except Pennsylvania and Wyoming logged increases in nonresident hunters since 2012. In contrast, half of those states – Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania — documented declines in resident hunters those years.

Assuming the nation’s hunting population keeps sliding, will tag allocations eventually loosen? Possibly, but no factors indicate impending change.

Jim Heffelfinger, wildlife science coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department and a research scientist at the University of Arizona, notes that his state had about 90,000 applications for about 45,000 deer tags this year, and 115,500 applications for 25,400 elk tags.

“You can lose a lot of your fellow hunters and still have a tough time drawing a tag,” Heffelfinger said. “And the tags many people are really interested in drawing, the ones that often cause the loudest complaining about not getting drawn, those might never loosen up.”