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What’s the real cost of drawing that coveted tag?

Sunrise on a hunt after drawing a coveted elk tag

Most things in life are affected by supply and demand and hunting is no exception. Some of the most coveted big game tags across the Western states are hard to come by because of limited availability. The most coveted tags are very low in supply and extremely high in demand. Yet, every year, thousands of hopeful hunters opt to play the odds in the draw system by applying for the few tags offered during the most opportune season dates in units known for producing the biggest of trophies. But it’s not uncommon for some of these tags to take well over 10 or 20 years to draw. How does applying for more than 10 years impact your overall cost for that coveted tag? Is it more than you bargained for? 

License vs tag

The main thing to understand is the difference between a hunting license and a species tag or species license. A hunting license is an annual license that is required to apply and hunt for big game. States that require the purchase of a hunting license usually sell them as a nonrefundable item. Purchasing a hunting license is typically required in order to gain a bonus or preference point if unsuccessful in the draw. The species tag or species license is the document that allows you to harvest an animal. These are typically species specific and valid for a designated time frame or hunting season. When you apply in a state drawing, you are applying for the species tag or species license. These are what are commonly referred to as “tags.”

Hunting license costs

Some states require the purchase of an annual hunting license. The table below shows which states have a required hunting license.

States that require an annual hunting
license purchase to apply

State

Yes

No

Resident hunt
license cost
Nonresident hunt
license cost
Arizona X   $37.00 $160.00
California X   $47.01 $163.65
Colorado   X NA NA
Idaho X   $12.75 $154.75
Montana   X NA NA
Nevada X   $33.00 $142.00
Oregon X   $32.00 $160.50
New Mexico X   $15.00 $65.00
Utah X   $34.00 $65
Washington   X NA NA
Wyoming   X NA NA


The cost of an annual hunting license is fairly significant, especially when you consider all the years that you have to purchase a license only to earn a point in some states. States like Arizona and Nevada require the purchase a hunting license in order to accrue bonus points in the draw. Idaho requires the purchase of an annual hunting license at the time of application, but does not have a point system so you are simply purchasing a license for no reason if you are not drawn. New Mexico also has a no point system in place and requires you to purchase an annual hunting license at the time of application, but New Mexico will issue a refund if you are unsuccessful drawing any tags. To review the exact costs of hunting licenses and tag fees, check out our State Profiles.

Species tag costs

Tags are the most expensive part of the equation. Yet, in most cases, this is an expense that we are all happy to pay. The majority of the Western states only charge you a tag fee if you are fortunate enough to draw. The fees for the tags vary based on the state and species that the tag is valid for. If you apply with a credit card, it is important to make sure that you have the availability on the card should you be fortunate enough to draw. Some species tags can run well over $1,000. This is why it is also important that your credit card company does not reject online charges for large amounts. Could you imagine spending years applying and finally drawing that coveted tag only to have the payment declined? Some of the states will give you a second chance to make funds available if a transaction is declined, but that is not a risk that hunters should take.

Stamps and validation costs

Beyond the cost of the species tag and annual hunting license, you may also be required to pay another small expense before you can actually head afield. These additional costs are commonly called Habitat Stamps, Conservation Stamps and validation fees. Even though these are generally low cost items, they can be a burden when the fee is not charged automatically upon being drawn. Make sure that you reference the State Profile for the state that you are planning to hunt before you make your trip. Purchasing all of your required stamps and/or validations ahead of  time will allow you to focus on your hunt rather than paperwork.

Upfront vs if drawn
 

Dave Loescher with an early rifle Arizona elk
Dave Loescher with an early rifle Arizona elk.

One of the biggest factors when assembling an annual application strategy is the float. The float can be defined as the amount of funds that you have extended at a given time. Several states are now charging the tag fees only if you are successful in the draw, but there are some states that require tag fees to be paid upfront at the time of application. In these “upfront states” the tag fees are then refunded if you are not drawn. Fronting the tag fees at application time can be costly, especially in states like Colorado and New Mexico if you decide to apply for several species. It is easy to find yourself floating several thousand dollars.

Refundable vs nonrefundable

When states collect the tag fees upfront, it can be difficult to come up with the needed cash for the float. Fortunately, they are refundable if you are not drawn. Most hunters have a budget that they can float or spend at application season. If you have a lot of cash extended floating tag fees, this may interfere with you being able to apply for some other states. Timing and planning is key here. For some guidance on ways to save money for your next hunt, you can check out this article

Cost to build points

If your intention is to apply each year to accumulate an additional bonus or preference point, then it is important to know that points do not come free. States that offer a bonus or preference point system may require the nonrefundable purchase of the annual hunting license each year as well as an application fee or a bonus point fee.

The real cost of drawing
 

Dave Loescher drawing a coveted Nevada elk tag
In 2015 I was one of two nonresidents to draw a Unit 231 elk tag in Nevada.

So just how much does that long awaited tag cost? The answer to this question is fairly complex. Some would say that it is simply the cost of the current year’s tag and hunting license. In my opinion, that is only partially true — unless you are fortunate enough to draw the tag in the first year of applying! It is incredibly rare for someone to draw the dream tag during the first year of applying. It is far more common for it to take over ten years to draw a premium tag in just about any state for any species.
 

 Ted Mellott 2011 Henry Mountains mule deer
Ted Mellotte with his Henry Mountains mule deer that Dave and Pat Loescher guided. He drew this tag after waiting for 17 years and he drew the only max point draw tag out of 18 applicants.

To illustrate the actual cost to draw, I would like to use a personal situation of mine related to Nevada mule deer. I have 12 bonus points for mule deer going into the 2016 Nevada big game draw. This means that I have been unsuccessfully applying for mule deer tags in the state of Nevada for 12 years. Assuming that I finally draw a mule deer tag this year in Nevada (hopefully all you readers assuming this will actually send me some luck to finally draw!), if I do draw in 2016, then I will have applied 13 times in order to receive one Nevada deer tag. In order to calculate the true cost, I need to take the current year’s fees as well as the previous 12 years nonrefundable fees, which also include the annual hunting license. Here is an illustration of just how much my upcoming (I hope!) Nevada deer tag will cost me. For simplicity, I will assume that the cost of the nonresident hunting license has been the same over the past 12 years.

The cost of drawing a nonresident
Nevada deer tag in 13 years

Fee description

Annual
cost

Cost after
13 years

NR mule deer tag (charged only when drawn) NA* $240.00
NR annual hunting license $142.00 $1,846.00
Annual nonrefundable application fee $10.00 $130.00
Annual nonrefundable predator management fee $3.00 $39.00
Annual nonrefundable online convenience fee $3.50 $45.50
Total cost $158.50** $2,300.50

*Charged only when drawn.
**Cost is cheaper if you apply for all species in a single year.

The cost after 13 years of applying and finally drawing is significantly more than the annual cost if drawn in year one. It is nearly six times higher in this illustration.

What about the once-in-a-lifetime species like desert bighorn sheep? When it comes to Nevada, I hope to draw a desert sheep tag at some point, but I am a realist and I anticipate this taking me at least 30 years before I actually draw. I realize that Nevada is a random state in the way they allocate and draw tags and that someone could get lucky and pull a sheep tag much earlier, but waiting 30 years is very realistic. Let run the same illustration for Nevada desert sheep assuming that I draw on my 30th year of applying.

The cost of drawing a nonresident
Nevada sheep tag in 30 years

Fee description

Annual
cost

Cost after
30 years

NR bighorn sheep tag
(charged only when drawn)
NA* $1,200.00
NR annual hunting license $142.00 $4,260.00
Annual nonrefundable application fee $10.00 $300.00
Annual nonrefundable predator management fee $3.00 $90.00
Annual nonrefundable online convenience fee $3.50 $105.00
Total cost $158.50** $5,955.00

*Charged only when drawn.
**Cost is cheaper if you apply for all species in a single year.

At $5,955 after 30 years of applying for a desert sheep tag, I would still consider this a good investment for an opportunity to hunt sheep. Compare this cost with the going rate of a purchased desert sheep tag in Sonora, Mexico and this is an obvious bargain.

30 years of applying for a NV sheep tag

To view it another way, this graph shows just how invested you are for a sheep tag by your sixth year when your total application cost up to this point is nearing $1,000 in nonrefundable fees. The spike in the graph on year 30 due to the price of the nonresident sheep tag that is only charged to you when you draw. The odds that you could be waiting longer than 30 years is very high...

The cost of drawing a nonresident
Nevada elk tag in 15 years

Fee description

Annual
cost

Cost after
15 years

NR elk tag
(charged only when drawn)
NA* $1,200.00
NR annual hunting license $142.00 $2,130.00
Annual nonrefundable application fee $10.00 $150.00
Annual nonrefundable predator management fee $3.00 $45.00
Annual nonrefundable online convenience fee $3.50 $52.50
Total cost $158.50** $3,577.50

*Charged only when drawn.
**Cost is cheaper if you apply for all species in a single year.

It could be argued that this illustration is not completely accurate due to the annual hunting license being valid for all big game species. That is a valid point if someone does actually draw a tag for multiple species over the years in a given state. Just remember that if you actually draw additional tags in the same state over the years that the extended annual hunting license fee will be less.

The alternative

I have met a few hunters through the years that are not buying points across the Western states through the public draw system. Their reasoning is that they would rather just purchase their premium tags. Landowner tags offer the option to avoid the draw and get your hands on a premium tag. When considering a premium deer tag in a landowner tag friendly state, the price is not usually cheap. My Nevada deer application is typically filled with choices that are not easily drawn in a short amount of years. The rule of thumb in landowner tag pricing is that the price is usually indicative of the rarity of the tag as well as the years that it would take to draw the tag. Simply put, the longer it takes to typically draw a tag, the higher the cost. One of the units that I would hope to draw in the next year would cost me about $8,000 for a Nevada landowner tag in the same unit. That is if I could even find one to purchase because they are rarely available. Spending $2,300 over 13 years is obviously less than the $8,000 cost for the tag today. The truth is that just 12 years ago (when I just began building points for deer in Nevada) this same landowner tag was available for about $3,000.

The solution

Waiting over a decade for a premium deer tag or over three decades for a once-in-a-lifetime sheep tag is not an easy thing to accept. We simply need to get out in the field and satisfy our craving to hunt and hone our skills. Purchasing a landowner tag is a viable option. I would recommend that everyone apply and build points even if they want to purchase a landowner tag. A landowner will allow you to circumvent the draw and hunt while still building points.

Over-the-counter or leftover seasons are the inexpensive option. While these may not be available in the very best of units, they will provide a way to satisfy that hunting craving while waiting to pull that coveted tag down the road.

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