If you’re a Midwestern hunter who’s looking at getting into hunting Western big game, you’ve probably bumped into the preference points system.
I’m a Minnesota hunter who loves our whitetail traditions, but like many state hunters, I have wanderlust and desire new challenges and landscapes. I’ve hunted mostly in Wyoming and Colorado, so I’ve spent much time and money with point systems.
Most Western states use points for nonresident hunters, including Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana. The exceptions are New Mexico and Idaho, which use a straight lottery system. In contrast, holders of points gain advantage in drawing tags, especially for coveted units that have a combination of much public land, good game populations, and trophy reputations.
The increasing interest in Western hunting and competition for the limited pool of nonresident tags means that to get quality hunting opportunities, you need to enter the “points game” and how which states operate their system.
For example, it currently takes four points to draw a Wyoming general elk
tag. As recently as 2017, it took only two. Additionally, there is an
ongoing movement in Western states to decrease the portion of tags
available to nonresidents.
Hunters accumulate points on an annual basis, by species. States vary in their
rules, however, as to how they are purchased. Colorado requires you to
buy a small-game license for $86 prior to purchasing preference points,
which are then $10 each for elk, deer, and antelope, creating an
incentive to purchase points for more than one species.
Wyoming’s system is that you simply buy the points, $50 for elk, $40 for deer,
$30 for antelope. Montana uses the same system as Wyoming for general elk and deer tags.
Another variable is that in Wyoming and Montana, lotteries for cow and doe tags
don’t use points; they are a straight lottery – a feature that can
increase your hunting opportunity. Colorado uses points for applying for
cow and doe tags.
Recently, there has been increasing attention to something called “point creep” –
the trend of an increasing number of points required to draw tags. This
is driven by the much greater portion of nonresident hunters who have
preference points than there are available tags, especially for the most
Many of us are “sitting on the sidelines,” as outdoors TV host and public
lands advocate Randy Newberg puts it, waiting to draw that “glory tag”
in a unit that has everything.
If you decide to get into the points game, how should you begin? Again, I’ll start with Newberg’s advice: go hunting.
Instead of waiting decade(s) for that glory tag you will probably never
possess, burn your points every few years and obtain a tag that doesn’t
offer everything, but still offers quality hunting.
Wyoming’s general elk tag currently offers 63 units from which hunters may
choose. Many are over-pressured with low success, but a significant
portion offer good elk numbers, high public access, and solid success rates.
Wyoming also has general deer tags by region, and if you do your research, you can
find good publicly accessible hunting. Colorado has
(decreasing) over-the-counter opportunities, but still offers some, and
has quality hunts for elk that take only five years to draw.
Be flexible with your expectations, focus on a few states, and be willing
to hunt cows and does sometimes. Then research and plan, and you can
hunt the American West every year. If you’re willing to work, you may
not harvest a trophy, but you’ll build experience on the landscape and
sometimes fill the freezer. Like most hunters, those are my primary
motivations. Big antlers are a great bonus.
Finally, don’t forget your kids! Many Western states have steep discounts on
licenses and points for nonresident youth. Wyoming and Colorado points
can be purchased the year kids turn 12.
Colorado has a special draw for youth for cow elk and some deer tags that
includes nonresidents. This year, my daughter Nathalie, in her last year
of high school, used her points to draw a Wyoming general elk tag and
harvested a fine bull. Her fraternal twin Theresa hasn’t used her points
yet, but has built up a bunch she can use as an adult.