Annals of Wildlife Management: The Problem with Auction Tags

Annals of Wildlife Management: The Problem with Auction Tags

When auctioneer John Bair finally stomped his cowboy boot on the stage of the 2016 Western Hunting and Conservation Expo and yelled “Sold!” there was a moment of stunned silence in the Salt Lake City ballroom. Then pandemonium as the crowd of hunters cheered, whistled, hooted and high-fived. They had just witnessed a record. The permit to hunt a single mule deer buck on Utah’s Antelope Island had just been sold to the highest bidder for the jaw-dropping price of $410,000.

The bidder was Canadian hunter Troy Lorenz, and while the record still stands, it’s hardly the only eye-popping sum that’s been paid for a single hunting permit.

Back in 2013, a tag for an Antelope Island mule deer was auctioned for $310,000—then a record—to Denny Austad, a wealthy industrialist from southeast Idaho. Austad later said that he considers Antelope Island to be “sacred ground” for its ability to grow big bucks. You might be familiar with Austad for his other record-breaking achievement: killing the “Spider Bull,” a world-record Utah elk he shot in 2008 on what’s called Utah’s Governor’s Permit, which allows the recipient to hunt any open unit in the state. Austad paid $170,000 for the permit.

Fast forward to 2016. There’s a reason everybody cheered back in the Expo ballroom. Even more than the mix of envy and resentment toward the buyer’s ability to throw so much cash towards a hunt, the crowd coalesced around the idea that the winning bid was really a donation to conservation. Nearly all that money—for a single remarkable specimen—is supposed to go back on the ground, to help biologists manage the species so that it might produce other outsized trophies as well as hunting licenses for the rest of us who can’t spend that kind of money on the auction tag.

That is an appealing promise, to “sacrifice” one remarkable specimen so that the wildlife population can benefit a multitude of humans. But it’s also not in the spirit of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, in which access to the public’s wildlife is equitably distributed. Also consider that in some states, not nearly all the money—or even most of the money—raised at auction goes back to the target species.

In Utah, 10 percent of auction revenue stays with the organization that helps sell the tag—in the case of Antelope Island, that’s the Mule Deer Foundation—to cover administrative expenses. Thirty percent goes to the state wildlife agency (in Utah, that’s the Division of Wildlife Resources, or DWR) for surveys, research and management. The remaining 60 percent stays with the non-profit that auctioned the tag, but the balance must all be spent on projects approved by the DWR.

“Every state is different in terms of how they split the revenue [from auction tags],” said Miles Moretti, the CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation, based in Salt Lake City. “In Arizona and Nevada, we return 100 percent of the revenue to the state agency. We get to help decide which projects are funded in Arizona, but have no say in what is funded in Nevada. In Oregon, we retain 10 percent. We don’t know where the remaining 90 percent goes.”

Auction tags are a relatively new phenomenon, borne out of a growing competition for access to trophies with the largest antlers and horns. Many of the competitors for these outsized specimens have insatiable appetites for ever-bigger trophies, unfathomably deep pockets to pay for tags and outfitters to guide them, and an impatience with the traditional route to a hard-to-draw tag, which is time and luck in the standard drawing.

The Economics
State wildlife departments are increasingly strapped for resources, as the hunting and fishing licenses that traditionally fund agencies are either stagnant or declining in most states. That’s one reason the auction tags are so appealing to wildlife managers. They offer an extra infusion of cash to help with management expenses.

But there are other ways of raising funds to benefit trophy species, including raffles and drawings. Many states, like Utah, use these more equitable methods to distribute high-demand permits.

An example of a raffle is Montana’s SuperTag lottery. Every year since 2006, the state’s Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks offers eight SuperTags, one each for moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, antelope, elk, deer, bison and mountain lion. Winners can hunt that species in any open district in the state, and hunters can buy as many entries as they want for $5 per chance. Odds of drawing are lousy—1,000-to-1 for mountain lions or a miserly 20,000-to-1 for sheep. But for hunters who haven’t accumulated many preference points for the species and don’t have the financial means to bid on an auction tag, SuperTags offer at least a chance at drawing a coveted trophy permit.

“There’s no limit on the number of SuperTags you can buy,” said Quentin Kujula, FWP’s wildlife management bureau chief. “But the odds are the same whether you buy 100 chances or just one.”

Of course, the traditional way to allocate limited tags is through the annual drawing, which is more or less equitable. Nearly every Western state has far fewer hunting opportunities—especially for trophy species such as bighorn sheep, mountain goat, moose, deer and elk—than people interested in hunting, so they distribute tags either through a random lottery or on the basis of preference or bonus points. The idea of points is that the more years that you are unsuccessful in the draw, the more chances you get the following year. It’s important to note that money from applicants in the drawing typically goes into the general-license account and is not allocated for species-specific management.

So, given that game management costs money—everything from biologists’ salaries to computers to fuel for pickups and airplanes—which permit-allocation system puts more money on the ground (and in the air) for the wildlife resource?

The answer is complicated, and depends on the details of how each state allocates license revenue. That said, one thing seems clear: More of these auction tags are issued every year. In Utah this year, 430 permits will be distributed to the highest bidder. And while auction tags pump millions of dollars of critical management money into the Beehive State, they also have changed the way the state manages wildlife, with more emphasis on limited-entry trophy units than on general hunting units open to wider participation.

The result is that while winning-bid prices continue to escalate for auction tags, the odds of pulling a premium tag in the draw keeps going down.

Aram von Benedict lives in Boulder, Utah, and says the state’s management for trophies has perverted the calculus for most Utah residents.

“A couple years back, I ran the stats on my son, who turns 13 this year,” said von Benedict, an outdoor writer and former hunting guide. “Based on preference points, by the time he has a 100 percent chance to draw a premium tag in Utah, like the ones issued for the mountain where we live, he will be 79 years old. For a kid, that’s a pretty daunting prospect. He’ll also have something like $6,000 in accumulated application fees. And that’s assuming they don’t go up in price.”

Sheep Management
Given that there’s another calculus at stake, for revenue returned to the resource, let’s look at a single species in a single state—Montana’s bighorn sheep—and break down the various revenue streams.

The state’s FWP has legislative authority to auction one tag each for bighorn sheep, moose, mule deer, elk and mountain goat. Because of its reputation for producing record-book rams, Montana’s sheep tag is especially coveted. The Wild Sheep Foundation has, for the past 30 years, auctioned the statewide sheep license, raising a total of nearly $7 million over that time. This year, the auction tag went for $280,000, down from last year’s $335,000. That buys a lot of fuel for helicopters used to monitor sheep populations, a lot of veterinarian work to study diseases and for trap-and-transfer operations that move sheep from over-populated units to less-populated ones.

But remember that not all that money goes to the resource. And it’s not the only money that’s available for sheep management. In a normal year, Montana issues a couple hundred bighorn sheep tags, roughly divided between rams and ewes. Because there are far more applicants than tags (the average odds of drawing for residents is 1.3 percent; for non-residents, it’s .003 percent), Montana sheep tags are distributed by lottery, with preference points giving longtime unsuccessful applicants more chances in the draw. Considering all the revenue associated with administering and issuing tags—from non-refundable drawing fees to the resident and non-resident licenses—Montana raised a little more than $700,000 on its sheep draw in 2017. Another $100,000 was raised in SuperTag sales.

Unlike auction-tag money, which is deposited in a special account that can only be used for sheep management, the draw revenue goes to the department’s general fund, to be used for everything from keeping the lights on in FWP buildings to raising trout in hatcheries.

The differential begs the question: if you’re a wildlife manager who wants to raise more sheep, shouldn’t you simply sell more auction tags to fund your program? That appears to be one explanation for Utah’s decision to reserve increasing numbers of tags for auction.

“We have seen no concerted effort or advocacy to increase [the auction-tag quota],” said Kujula, FWP’s wildlife-management bureau chief. “It seems Montana’s balance, with one special bighorn tag allocated by auction, and one special bighorn tag allocated by lottery, is the current status quo.”

The Trophy Trap
That seems right to Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, who cites Utah’s auction tags as a troubling trend. Gevock says that by distributing so many special permits to the highest bidder, the DWR is taking an opportunity from its citizens of more modest means.

“Back before Utah went to so many limited-entry and auction permits, the state had an 11-day general deer season, and everybody went hunting,” Gevock said. “You couldn’t find a campsite on public ground, because whole families were out together. I’d argue that auction tags have turned hunting into a contest that’s about inches of antler rather than the experience of hunting. The handful of auction tags in Montana is a reasonable balance. A sheep permit can be sold for surreal amounts of money, but look what we still have in the state: a janitor can buy a general deer tag and have six weeks of archery hunting and five weeks of rifle hunting.”

Toby Boudreau, the wildlife division chief for Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game, sees another troubling trend with auctioning tags.

“According to principles of wildlife management, we’re supposed to be managing for populations, not individual animals,” Boudreau said. “Furthermore, according to the North American model of wildlife conservation, we’re not supposed to be selling the public’s wildlife, but I’d argue that’s precisely what auction tags enable. We’re seeing bidders buying not just an opportunity to hunt an area, but for the expectation to kill a single individual animal.”

Boudreau points to this year’s Wild Sheep Foundation’s convention in Reno, Nev.

“Arizona’s big game manager came in with trail-cam photos and other documentary evidence of a specific living ram—a giant—and announced that it was available on a unit that’s open for the Governor’s Desert Sheep Permit holder,” he said. “That tag sold for $80,000 more than it’s brought in a decade because they had a picture of this curl-and-a-quarter specimen. You can’t tell me that the auction bidders weren’t bidding on that specific animal, not for the opportunity.”

Boudreau stands at an interesting crossroads in the discussion about the policy implications of distributing big game tags by highest bidder (auction) or good fortune (lottery). Idaho is one of the few states—New Mexico and Alaska are the others—that has held the line on auction tags. The state releases only one: for a single Hells Canyon bighorn ram. The rest of Idaho’s big game tags are distributed either through the regular draw, for which no bonus or preference points are available, or through the Super Hunts raffle.

“There’s been some talk in the state legislature about revising the law on distributing tags to create more auction tags,” Boudreau said. “But every time, the sportsmen of Idaho have stood up and said that the most important thing to them is being able to hunt every year. The Idaho mentality with big game tags is that while they appreciate trophies, everybody should have a chance, and that everybody should be on an even playing field when it comes to drawing a tag.”

Feature image via John Hafner.

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