Western Tag Draw = Ponzi Scheme?

The odds of drawing a coveted western big game tag have never been lower — and sadly it’s only going to get worse.

Western Tag Draw = Ponzi Scheme?

Photo courtesy of Worldwide Trophy Adventures TAGS

Who among Bowhunting World readers doesn’t dream about traveling out West to hunt a giant bugling bull elk, a majestic mule deer buck, or even a bighorn sheep or moose? For nonresidents, I have some sobering news: Your odds of drawing a coveted tag have become about as poor as playing the Powerball. And the cost is much, much higher.

“Nonresident application numbers continue to increase, while the nonresident tag allocations continue to dwindle,” said Eric Pawlek, director, Worldwide Trophy Adventures TAGS, a professional licensing service that helps hunters play the tag application game. “Wyoming’s decision to cut the nonresident moose, sheep, mountain goat and bison tags from 20 percent to 10 percent of the total available (the rest are reserved for state residents) was a significant blow in 2023. Colorado has also recently implemented changes that will negatively affect nonresident hunting opportunities.”

For those wishing to draw tags in states that manage herds for quality, not quantity — there is a big difference — the odds for nonresidents drawing tags for any species are low. At the same time, state game departments continue to stick it to nonresidents in terms of cost relative to the cost for residents. Example: In 2020, Montana residents spent $10,957,132 on hunting licenses, tags, permits and stamps, while nonresidents spent $28,026,136 — two and a half times as much.

Then there are “fees” collected simply to apply for a tag the odds say you’ll probably never draw. To apply — with no guarantee you’ll draw a tag — in many states you must first buy a nonrefundable nonresident hunting license and/or habitat stamp. The cost can be steep. For example, a nonresident hunting license in these states costs the following: Alaska, $160; Arizona, $160; California, $188.74; Colorado, $86.60; Idaho, $185; Kansas, $97.50; Nevada, $155; New Mexico, $65; Oregon, $172; Utah, $72. If you don’t draw, you eat the license. 

On top of that, there are nonrefundable nonresident application fees, which vary by state and species; examples include big fees such as $223.38 for Wyoming Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep or smaller ones like $14 for Nevada pronghorns.

Because the odds of drawing certain tags are extremely long, many hunters opt to create a long-term application strategy, knowing they will only have a good chance to draw, say, a premium big bull elk tag in Arizona once every 10-15 years. In those instances, they choose to buy a bonus or preference point (there is a big difference), depending on the state, and often accrue points in multiple states. These costs are relatively inexpensive, but nonrefundable. The hope is that, over time, you’ll accrue enough points in enough states to eventually draw.

“While things continue to get progressively more difficult for the nonresident, entering the draws and building valuable bonus points is more critical than ever,” Pawlak said. “The outfitting industry has seen hyperinflation over the past 20 years like no other. Guaranteed tag elk hunts that I was selling for $6,000 back in 2004, are now being sold for close to $20,000. Drawing a premium, limited-entry tag is still the only way a sportsman can book a high-quality hunt at a reasonable price these days.”

In some cases, buying points makes no sense at all, since the odds are you will never draw. For example, in Arizona in 2021, 36,027 people applied for a sheep tag (including bonus point only apps.) There were 140 tags issued, with 28 tags going to max bonus point holders (33), and only 14 tags going to nonresidents. At this time, 2,808 residents had 20+ points, and 1,750 nonresidents had 20+ points, with 10,396 applicants buying a point only. Multiply 140 (tags) x 20 (years) = 2,800, which means roughly 2,800 hunters will get a chance to go Arizona sheep hunting over the next 20 years. It doesn't take a math genius to figure out you may never draw a sheep tag with 36,027 people applying (this number is increasing annually). Let's just say you live to the age of 80 and you started applying for bighorn sheep tags when you were 10 years old. You basically have a one-in-three chance of drawing a sheep tag over your 70 years of applying. AND you bought a nonrefundable hunting license every year for the privilege.

“Despite the challenges, there are still opportunities out there,” Pawlak said. “You have to pick your spots, be on the inside, and apply consistently and perfectly. Looking for that next sleeper unit that has recently ‘turned on’ is crucial. This is exactly where a professional licensing service and booking agency can assist. As tags become more difficult to draw and guided hunt prices continue to rise, it is now more important than ever to be building points across the West.”

How much money have I spent on the chance I might someday draw a sheep tag over the past 30 years? Tens of thousands of dollars. In the long run, I probably should have just bought a guided hunt in Mexico 20 years ago instead of accumulating points I’ll never cash in. In 2023, I applied for 23 tags and drew one, a rifle muley tag in Arizona with 12 bonus points (I didn’t see a buck I wanted, either.) It’s like buying expensive raffle tickets. Somebody will win the prize. It just may never be you. Sadly, for nonresidents the odds, and the cost, are only going to get worse.


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