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Is Western Hunting Becoming A Rich Person’s Game?

 

Taking A Dive Into The Historical Data of Four Western States to Answer the Question

 

I am not too fond of the idea of hunting out West becoming a rich person’s game. Therefore, I initially set out to answer this question, thinking I could disprove the negative Nancy’s on the topic. However, in my deep dive, I realized it is a much more complex and convoluted question than I had ever imagined.

I will tell you now if you want a simple answer, then the following story is not for you. Instead, if you want to learn a bit about the state of tag prices, hunting demand, and the state of western hunting, then read on.

What is this “rich person’s game?”

I do not have the personal experiences as does someone who can anecdotally point to the price of licenses from the mid-’90s. So I figured there was no better way to begin addressing the issue than to crunch the numbers. To start, I asked, “are nonresident license fees increasing out of control?”

In this deep dive, I gathered pricing information dating back to 1992 from Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado. I chose 1992 since those season’s prices were likely set in or before 1991 – 30 years ago. I also opened the vaults of my Economics college education to make sure we compared apples to apples and converted all of those prices into today’s dollars. That means I automatically increased 1992 prices by 192%.

 

Accounting for the increases of costs across the board is a crucial piece of the puzzle to answer the question. For example, gas prices are well over $3 per gallon at my pumps, camp food and motels cost way more today than back then, and incomes have increased as well. If we did not account for inflation in these conversations, you might as well ask, “is living becoming a rich person’s game?” But, unfortunately, that would not be very helpful when choosing where and how often you want to hunt across the West.

Immediately, accounting for inflation cools the jets on most of these pricing increases we see on paper since 1992. So instead of Wyoming’s nonresident regular elk tag more than doubling in 30 years, it is a more moderate increase of 5% compared to the prices of everything else in our lives.

On average, nonresident deer and elk prices increased 53% since 1992 while accounting for inflation. Utah leads the charge in increases with Utah’s 209% increase in elk tags, a permit that only cost $100 in 1992. Idaho and Utah have both increased prices across the board recently, only truly catching up to west-wide prices in the past two years.

Wyoming’s nonresident elk tags were accompanied by the “special” license price that qualifies Wyoming for the highest-priced elk tag in the Rocky Mountain West to make it easier to draw for those less price-sensitive applicants. Other states have separate pricing for various permits, like Utah’s general, limited entry, and premium limited entry prices, as well as New Mexico’s standard hunt versus quality hunt prices. The strategy was to reduce demand for these licenses with such high fees, hopefully. However, they are perennially the most sought-after tags. So the juice is worth the squeeze for these higher-priced tags in New Mexico and Utah.

 

Are these increases enough to encourage fewer folks to apply or hunt out West? The data shows it has not played out as such in the draws. However, if you tried to get a Colorado, Montana, or Wyoming deer license this year, you would likely concur.

Why is that? 

My friend Cody is an avid hunter from Nevada who has hunted across the West most of his life. When I asked him about their high elk tag price (highest resident price across the West at $120), he points out there are a lot many activities that cost more or the relatively same amount as doing these western DIY hunts.

“It now costs me and my wife and kid well over $200 just to go skiing one day at a resort near Tahoe. That doesn’t include all the gear and clothing that is “necessary” to have a fun day on the mountain!” Cody told me.

His point holds water considering the expense of a typical family vacation at Disney Land, as well. Tickets there start at $104 per day. You can apply as a nonresident for deer, elk, and antelope in Colorado for that amount

Cody adds, “In the grand scheme of things, actual tag prices rarely sway my decision/affordability litmus test when you consider gas, food, lodging, application fees, bonus points, new gear, guns, ammo, etc.”

I think he is right. If you are already a middle to upper-middle-class traveling hunter out West, chances are you will not be cutting out your trip to [insert your favorite state] if tag prices jump a little bit.

What About Residents Paying Their Share?

If you’re involved with Game and Fish licensing conversations in the West, it is undeniable the residents of those states push back hard on price increases. In addition, states manage wildlife in the trust of the state’s residents, making sense they want to experience hunting their wildlife for less than those who come to visit the state.

That said, Colorado and Utah’s standard elk licenses have decreased in price since 1992 if you account for inflation. On average, these four western states have increased prices on residents by 33%, but percentages do not tell the whole story. For example, Idaho’s increase from a $9 deer tag to $23 is minor compared to the $350 nonresident deer tag.

It feels unfair to have prices levied higher for the same hunt experience for those of us visiting those states. However, it’s important to remember the wildlife is managed for the people who live within these states. Others, like North Dakota, do not allow any nonresident hunting for species like elk. I feel lucky as a nonresident to get any slice of the allocation pie.

We are all nonresidents somewhere; that much is true. In our home states, we receive the benefits of living here. For instance, Arkansas residents have the benefit of killing two whitetail bucks, four does, and two turkeys for the price of one Idaho resident mule deer license. On the other hand, I might have to haul drinking water to the house and go to town for WIFI. I may be missing out on a larger paycheck than my collegiate classmates who moved to Austin, but I sure feel lucky to be a Wyoming resident with the opportunities here.

 

Increased Demand Is A Major Issue

A fifty-something percent increase in license fees in the West is a pretty substantial increase for folks accustomed to cheaper hunting opportunities back in the early ’90s. However, it is not the fundamental cause of concern. The compounding increases in applicants in each state have something to do with the problem; just look at Colorado’s addition of 35,000 applications in 2021.

It is a part of Colorado I love driving by. The area hosts classic giant cathedral peaks in the background to foothills full of big glowing aspen stands, low country with quality trophy buck habitat, and low deer hunting pressure (based on the TagHub analysis). I really want to hunt there someday.

In the 2019 Colorado deer draw, a hunt drew 86% of 2nd season applicants with one preference point. Point creep made those same applicants 17% successful in 2020 when I applied for the hunt. This year, only 20% of folks with five preference points drew the unit, a four preference point jump thanks to increased applicants.

Therein lies the biggest problem of all – increased demand for nonresident licenses. While states feel compounding increases in applicants year over year, the number of licenses available cannot keep up with demand. In my Colorado example, the only conceivable way to get into my unit for a later season hunt would be to purchase a landowner license or the state to increase the overall number of licenses.

The entire U.S. population has increased from 256 million people to 328 million since 1992. The population increase would be enough to stymy access to hunting opportunities, like the frequency of hunting late deer seasons in the Gunnison Basin of Colorado. In addition, there are a lot of folks who have hopped into multi-state tag application strategy, like me, since the boom of hunting media. Eastman’s have long been front-runners of the west-wide application game, making it easier to understand the wealth of hunting opportunities available to someone with a bit of forethought. But, the explosion of platforms like podcasts, YouTube, and other digital media since the early 2000s seems to have sped up the demand.

Those who like to do it on their own, myself included, are feeling the pressure of decreased nonresident hunting opportunities across the West for bull elk and buck mule deer. Idaho recently moved to a 15% nonresident cap by unit. Oregon moved to a controlled-only mule deer system in 2021. Arizona decreased OTC mule deer opportunities this year. It’s hard not to feel the squeeze of fewer chances to go hunting, even if it’s not affecting the unit or state you enjoy.

The loss of mule deer and bull elk opportunities is not to say there are no other ways to go hunting across the West, however. On the contrary, it has never been better to hunt cow elk and whitetail deer out West!

Freezer-filling cow elk tags can get you in premium units in the middle of the rut and usually don’t take any preference points or lucky rabbit’s feet to draw. Plus, growing whitetail populations in states like Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming are arguably under-hunted. So there are great chances at mature trophy bucks without ever paying for a trespass fee or outfitter.

It also never hurts to contribute to conserving the species we are chasing to try and prevent more tag cuts to our favorite hunting areas. Whether you have the spare time or spare dollars, contributing a little extra to our game populations never hurts. Maybe if we can help our friends in Arizona with more guzzler projects, they can have better deer survival during drought. Perhaps if we give a little of our time or money toward reseeding bitterbrush where fires have taken out suitable habitat in Wyoming, we can increase the number of nonresident regional licenses. These are all long-term solutions to the supply-side of hunting opportunities.

At the end of the day, if you are bummed at the increase of license prices in 30 years of hunting, you probably are also upset to see so many great opportunities slip away for the nonresident hunter in the same timeframe.

Is hunting out west becoming a rich person’s game? It is a complex question. If hunting out west truly is becoming a rich person’s game today, I imagine I’d be one of the first hunters left on the outside. That said, today, I have a pocket full of antlerless and antlered tags in multiple states and plan to hunt hard this fall on my NGO salary, so I cannot complain.

About Jaden Bales

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12 comments

  1. You now what happens when supply goes down! Prices are surely to go up again. The price for MT licenses are already sky high for non-residents. But, they keep selling. At some point people won’t pay.

  2. Tim is correct! Basic supply – demand. A price point is out there where u see the back side of the curve. My opinion is it has not arrived yet, wages have closely kept place. These clowns are now paying $15 to an uneducated non skilled McDonalds employee.
    Really the question in this is the prevention of new entry hunters. The tag cost is a factor but stack all the other costs and Joe new hunter is out of the hunting game before even starting !
    That’s where we need to “give back” and have a “ introduce 1 new hunter strategy” for every current hunter with the means to do it. A 1-1 ratio at least keeps us on par ? As a group of hunters we only have each other to influence the current and future of hunting !

  3. It’s Been a Rich Man’s Dream for Over 30 Year’s ! Plus Outfitters Locking Up BLM Land’s on our Dollars ? I have seen Locks on Goverment Road Gates ! And Year’s Ago they wouldn’t do anything to Open them Up !!!

  4. If you think 120.00 is a lot for a resident elk tag you should price a resident elk tag in California.

  5. Used to love to hunt but due to fires and the increasing tag cost and my wages haven’t increased in over ten years west coast hunting is not affordable or even worth the time and money anymore probably gonna give up hunting all together due to employers not paying enough to enjoy my sports or passions ,number one reason hunters are declining and not passing on the knowledge or willing to help out of states learn there states

  6. Look at the entire cost of hunting in the west compared to your income from what is was in 2000 to 2021. I would bet for the average working stiff that percent is much higher now. Consider all the costs of applying for 20 plus years before you draw, airfare or driving expense, hotel, food and if you use a outfitter. Outfitters used to pick you up at the airport- none do now. Outfitters used to feed you and supply a bed in a cabin, motel or tent- now many are requiring you to pay your own motel room and food on top of the hunt. Total cost for a outfitted elk hunt in the mid 1990″s to now has almost tripled. Although my hourly wage has increased 25%, my annual salary has actually decreased because I do not get any O.T..So in comparing, a decrease in my annual salary, to at least a 250% increase in hunting cost for me. A N.M. elk hunt would be about 10% of my salary in 1996. This year going to Utah MZ elk it will be almost 25% of my salary. Then there is the issue of almost all tags are now in a draw, with very few OTC so it takes many years to draw the same tag one could get within 2-3 years. Oh then there is the cost of taxidermy too! Yeah hunting is getting to be a rich man’s game

  7. Your life is about choices. What does it cost to ski each day and how many times will you do it in a year? What does it cost to play golf, take your family to a movie, what type of phone do you have, what other electronic gadgets to you own and pay a fee to use? The cost of a license it usually the cheapest part of the the trip when comparing to all of the other items needed or wanted. Each day the habitat that wildlife needs is shrinking and population continues to increase which both affect the ability to draw the license you want. Each entity charged with managing the wildlife is also having to cover the costs of operating their entities and as mentioned above, all of those costs are increasing. License fees will go up. Is Western Hunting Becoming a Rich Person’s Sport – I say no!! We all have to make choices and if I choose to hunt I will find a way to save for that limited tag or choose to purchase an OTC one if available. One thing for sure, it that the demand to hunt in the Western States is on the rise. It may not be long before all hunts in the Western States are all draw. The higher the demand, the higher the prices that can be asked. Again, it will be driven by choices.

  8. The price of an elk license in Colorado isn’t as big of a concern as the unlimited nonresident hunting is. Nearly every western state limits nonresident tags to 10%, with Wyoming at a high of 16% and New Mexico at the low of 6%. Most states have no OTC tags. Colorado has virtually unlimited hunting with a large part of the state OTC in both archery and rifle seasons. It’s a free-for-all and nonresidents are around 75% of the hunters in the archery season in OTC areas. That’s absurd and affects the quality of the hunting for everyone. Every nonresident I asked said they would prefer to hunt every 2-3 years if the hunting pressure could be reduced….it’s literally a zoo out there. Colorado needs to open up more of the state to residents and limit EVERY unit to nonresidents at some point under 15%. I started bowhunting Colorado (my home for 60+ years) in 1991 and it was an incredible experience at that time. Now it’s hard to find a camping spot. I won’t use my 19 elk points on a 0-10 point area and they refuse to address point creep for which there’s a reasonable solution. We don’t need more hunters as the money-hungry G&F departments seem to think.

  9. I’m 35 and from my experiences most people I see out there elk and deer hunting in CO at least are 10-20 years my superior. Some people younger or my age, but the tech society, kids and their phones, has limited new entrants the last 20 years. But boomer-aged folks right now are at their highest wage points in their careers, with access to most time off they’ve ever had (company’s are also giving more these days). Most can can afford high tag prices, the expensive gear, ATVs/UTVs, oversized fifth wheels and all the other stuff and extra people that non-rese’s bring to CO each fall. A benefit to local businesses for sure, but residents will fill the gaps. Once all the boomers start aging out of hunting abilities in the next 10-20 years I’m guessing the supply of tags and quality of hunt opportunities increases again.

  10. You can slice it any way you want to Jaden. I have hunted the western states of CO, MT, and WY since 1994 and have thoroughly enjoyed my experiences and am really sad to say that due to the greedy game and fish departments of all of these states myself and numerous others that I make these annual outings with have thrown in the towel. We are thru and will spend our $$ closer to home. I would like to call for all NR hunters who predominantly spend their money to hunt on PUBLIC land to boycott the west. Then see how these G&F departments like it when they lose their livelihoods because they can no longer afford to stay afloat. There are a lot of us that are just sick and tired of these states unfairly paying for the cost of doing business off the backs of the non resident sportsman. The disparity between the NR’s vs residents is an absolute joke. I have accumulated numerous point across these states and spent a lot of money doing so but I am withdrawing from their ridiculous game. They will not be getting any more of my money. I just feel sorry for all of the local businesses in these states if more non residents feel like me and decide to quit coming.

  11. Well written article looking at issues from all sides. Nice analysis showing license fees in relation to inflation and cost of living. Seems the main issue in the article and comments in supply and demand for Non-resident tags. States cap non resident tags and demand is there at the current prices. Not much need for states to modify or change. Not saying its great or agree but the reality.

  12. The article seems to truly on care to compare licensing costs. Hell if I only had to pay for a license as a NR I wouldn’t believe western hunting is a rich mans game. Where the problem really comes in relation to cost is the gas/food/lodging and all not simply increasing by a mere 5% over inflation but by 50% with gas, lodging coming in at almost 400% higher and food being nearly double. That with the added hunting pressure in most states makes for a long trip burning money only to be tripping over other hunters. Maybe it’s not a rich man’s game per se but it’s definitely a game that takes months of planning and time spent only to get there opening day and run into more people than animals.

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