Navigating the Western Tag System: Five Ways to Get the Hunt of a Lifetime

Photo: U.S. Department of Interior

The West is full of land and opportunities for hunters. It’s home to majestic species like elk, bear, moose, antelope, mule deer, blacktail deer, whitetail deer, mountain goats and big-horned sheep, but it’s also a likely source of frustration if you try to buy a tag to hunt these animals.

Why is that, and what’s the trick to securing a tag for the hunt of a lifetime? Let’s explore these questions and provide answers to help you begin your quest.

The West has plenty of species to chase, but there are limited population numbers for each species. These animals face harsh winters, have multiple natural predators and are highly sought after by hunters across the globe. So the region’s populations take a hit, which helps explain why state wildlife agencies created tag systems. This approach gives wildlife a fair chance, and provides hunters the opportunity to shoot a bucket-list animal.

Jeff McKinney, a Whitetail Properties Land Specialist in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, knows the system well. He’s played it for over 30 years. He has a running file on each state tracking how many preference/bonus points he has for different species, the best units with the most public land and their success rates, and information on the tag requirements, deadlines and nuances.

“Every single Western state has reinvented the wheel,” he said. “No state wildlife agency piggybacks off anyone else’s system. They all created completely different systems, and each has its benefits and drawbacks. Some use a lottery system without a point system, like New Mexico and Idaho. Others use bonus or preference points like Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Very few, including Idaho and Colorado, have some over-the-counter tags paired with other strategies. They all have their own rules, and they change them often.”

McKinney said hunting the West isn’t as complex as it seems. You just need to focus on what you want to hunt, where you want to hunt, and how to get the tag that meets those objectives. Then, you research, apply and wait. Eventually, you should get drawn for your dream hunt. If you’re ready to commit to hunting Western wildlife, here are five ways to secure a tag.

5 Ways to Hunt Western Game

1. Do It Yourself

To get a tag on your own accord, you must play the state’s lottery or point system. Each state is different, but there are three basic concepts to understand.

Preference points give hunters with the most points a preference in the draw. This point system places you in a chronological line. Someone with six points will get picked before someone with five. A person can earn points in different ways. In Montana and Wyoming, you can apply for a point by a specific date, pay for the point and it’s yours. In Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Utah, you must buy a qualifying license to apply for the drawing. If you have enough points associated with your license and get drawn, you keep the license. If you don’t have enough points, you won’t draw, but you can pay $15 to $150 to gain a point (depending on the state and species). The state will refund the rest of your money, minus the qualifying license and point fee costs.

Bonus points give hunters extra chances to get drawn. Think of them like raffle tickets. The more bonus points you have, the better your odds. However, someone with three bonus points can draw a tag over someone with 10 bonus points. Most states allow people to buy bonus points outright during certain time frames.

A lottery system works just as you would expect. Everyone who puts into the lottery has an equal chance at being picked because it’s random.

Playing the point system is a long-term plan because it can take 5, 10, 15 or 30 years to draw a tag. In fact, it takes 28 points to draw Colorado’s most-desired elk unit, and because you earn only one point per year, you’ll typically wait many years to get drawn. You must be organized and committed to the DIY method because you must apply on time annually during the application windows. On the bright side, McKinney said it’s an inexpensive way to get a tag.

2. Apply for Group Tags

Most Western states allow you to apply as a group or for a party tag, which means everyone will draw the tags, or no one will. States usually rank group applications in two ways: One, the state will add all the preference points from everyone in the party to get a total. Then, it’ll divide that number to acquire the average and compare the average with other group averages. Or, two, the state will base the group’s ranking on the person in the group with the lowest number of points. Either way, applying for a group tag assures an all or nothing draw for the people in your party.

3. Buy Land

As a rule, states give most of their tags to residents or landowners. It’s only fair as residents pay taxes. However, the breakdown of resident versus nonresident tags varies. Most western states allocate 90% of their tags to residents, leaving 10% for nonresidents, except for Colorado which has a 65% resident to 35% nonresident split and an 80% resident and 20% nonresident split in coveted units that require 6-plus preference points.

Because tags are easier to get for landowners, consider buying land in a Western state. McKinney said you’d likely get a tag sooner than you would playing the system. Some people choose to form a Limited Liability Company and buy land with friends. Then, they rotate who gets the tag. He said that’s a great option for those who want long-term Western hunting opportunities. Most states require landowners to own 160 acres to qualify for landowner draws. Montana requires a 640-acre minimum to qualify for elk but only 160 acres for deer and antelope.

4. Work with a Landowner or Outfitter

Some states, including Colorado and New Mexico, have transferable landowner tags, meaning they receive a tag as a qualified landowner but can sell it to nonresidents. Some ranches, outfitters and private landowners use this strategy to get additional income. It also allows individuals to bypass the tag system and get a tag quickly, but it’s pricey.

“By paying $5,000 to $20,000 for a tag, you’re bypassing the five to 20 years you’d spend acquiring a tag through the draw system,” McKinney said.

Another option is to hire an outfitter. They often have private land to hunt, know where their herds are, and can supply gear, horses, transportation and housing, which takes the stress and pressure off you.

5. Take Your Kid

McKinney said Western states usually provide good hunting opportunities for youth, and they’re usually discounted or easier to draw because there’s less competition. Most states use a similar draw process for youths and adults, but less kids put in, so the drawing odds increase. If you go this route, you might also get to hunt, but if not, a youngster in your life will, and that’s pretty cool. In some states, youth seasons occur before adult seasons. This timing also gives kids better kill odds because they’re chasing less pressured animals.

Weigh the pros and cons of each strategy to find the one that best fits your goals and lifestyle. McKinney encourages people to pursue a few options to expand their draw chances and hunt opportunities. Get started today. Although there’s a learning curve to getting a Western tag, when you do, McKinney said the hunt and experience are well worth your time and efforts.


Understanding the system can be tricky if you go the DIY route either for yourself, for a young person or with a group of friends. To make it a little easier, use these tips:

Do Your Research

There’s no better way to understand the logistics of each state’s tag system than to dive into them, take notes and ask questions. Fortunately, every state agency has a detailed website where you can learn the price of tags, hunting season dates, draw odds, the history of who drew and how many points you usually need to draw. McKinney encourages hunters to scavenge these websites and find as much information as possible to make the best decisions regarding where and what to hunt. If you get confused or need help finding something, call the state agency or a friend who lives in that state for guidance and clarification.

Use an Application Service

Nowadays, there are many tools and resources to help you navigate the system. For example, the HuntReminder app is an email-based service that reminds hunters to apply for a tag, lottery or preference point for different states and species during the application period and again before it closes.

If you aren’t into the DIY scene and research isn’t your thing, consider using an application service that applies for tags on your behalf, like Hunting Fool, GoHUNT, Epic Outdoors or Hunters Trailhead.

“You can hire one of these companies, and they’ll do the work for you,” McKinney said. “You can carry on with your life, and these guys carry the burden of getting your tags. There are lots of services available and the representatives are knowledgeable, so they’ll walk you through the ins and outs.”

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