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Colorado Elk Draw-Effects of New Colorado Draw Regulations

Written by: Mark Richman from

If you don’t care about elk hunting in Colorado, bear with me. Colorado is the 800 pound gorilla of elk hunting, is the state I follow the most closely and is the state and species 90% of Eastern and Midwestern hunters are most interested in. As some hunters are in a constant state of thinking for the future, knowing how and where to spend your scouting efforts and research this summer and a complete understanding of the effect of the new draw rules may help you with your future application strategies.

Anyway, last year the Colorado Division of Wildlife announced they would finally offer a hybrid draw system, but only for the highest demand hunts. Previously, Colorado operated on a pure preference system, where the applicant with the most points got the tags (only state in the US with this type of draw). There was no chance for an applicant with fewer points to acquire a high quality permit in Colorado’s Northwest trophy units. The point creep also made it unlikely that some applicants would ever draw before dying or quitting hunting. Units 2, 10 and 201 require 15-20 points to draw, even for archery, and the number required was going up yearly. So, in order to give applicants with fewer points some sort of a chance of drawing, the DOW decided to go with a hybrid draw, where 20% of the tags would be randomly allocated to applicants with 5 or more preference points. However, that also meant that the tag quota would be reduced for the 80% preference point draw, increasing the points required.

Secondly, the Colorado Division of Wildlife also decided to do away with the former “statewide” muzzleloader elk tags and exert more control over hunter distribution. The old statewide tag was valid in most of the OTC archery units, which made up about 50% of the mountainous regions of Colorado. There were both bull and cow tags available in the statewide tag system and the old cow tags were list A. Meaning those who drew a statewide muzzleloader cow tag could not buy an OTC or leftover bull tag. By controlling the cow and bull harvest more closely with muzzleloader hunters, the DOW now offers List B cow elk muzzleloader permits. But, by breaking up the units from the statewide system to individual hunt codes, it was difficult to predict how many points would be required to draw each unit, especially without knowing the tag quotas ahead of time. We knew how many muzzleloader hunters hunted each unit, and there was talk of reducing muzzleloader hunter pressure in some areas, so combined with the hybrid draw, this year more than ever was a bit of a crapshoot for applications.

Lastly, the Gunnison Basin units, 54, 55 and 551 were removed from the statewide OTC archery tag, causing further confusion to anyone trying to predict how to use their applications. These were popular units, but the archer pressure was making it difficult for the DOW to hit their harvest objectives with the rifle hunters. To increase total harvest, the DOW decided to reduce the archer numbers which were scattering significant numbers of elk to refuges off of the public lands. Biologists also chose to reduce 1st rifle season pressure, so that there would be more elk and less pressured elk available for the OTC 2nd and 3rd rifle seasons. Added to those strategies were additional late season cow permits.

Anyway, this is will be a review of where the applicant pressure went. It’s possible that the preference points required for muzzleloader, hybrid and non hybrid trophy units won’t stabilize for several more years. Many hunters aren’t as savvy with applications as those with, do not read the draw summaries, do not have a cohesive application strategy and will continue to make unwise application decisions. But for those who try to have a strategy with long and short term goals, it’s difficult to predict an outcome when there are major changes to the mechanism by which we acquire our sought-after tags. So the point of this whole article is to educate ourselves on how to play the system as wisely as possible. I will probably send this out again next application season as a reminder.

I was curious to find out whether the new hybrid draw reduced the number of points required in the middle tier trophy units: 40, 61 and 76, and what effect the loss of the statewide muzzleloader tag would have on tag availability. Would fewer hunters apply first for a preference point and then try to draw a tag with a second choice? What would happen with the cow muzzleloader tags? Would more people be willing to apply for the northwest trophy units with one-third to one-half the required points hoping to steal a hybrid tag? Would more people apply for a preference point in the hopes of earning the 5 points required to by hybrid eligible? Would some people simply give up trying to draw the northwest trophy units knowing that the number of points required will keep increasing? What effect would the limitation of archers in the Gunnison area have on the draw? There are also Ranching for Wildlife bull and either sex tags available to Colorado residents only that became part of the hybrid draw, but that will not be the major focus of this report. There were very few deer tags that were hybrid eligible (as with the elk, hybrid units required 10 or more resident preference points to draw) and no other major changes, so I will not be taking a close look at the effects on the deer draw.

The whole preference system is based on simple supply and demand, so we first need to take an overview of the demand on limited Colorado elk tags. For 2010, there were 191,747 elk applications for 147,849 limited tags. This is continuing a downward trend from the 192,606 applicants in 2009, 197,413 in 2008, and 198,044 in 2007. The limited tag quotas hardly changed between 2010 and 2009, but are down from 156,925 in 2008 and 165,366 in 2007. The main decrease in applicants came from nonresidents, with 77,504 in 2010, 79,764 in 2009, 86,818 in 2008 and 88,522 in 2007. Resident applications are on the rise though, with 105,209 in 2010, 104,017 in 2009, 101,870 in 2008, and 101,104 in 2007. So both applications and tags are down from recent numbers, but overall limited tags represented 77% of applications in 2010, versus 83% in 2007. This indicates that the recent reduction in applications were not in line with the reduction in tags. So preference points required should increase slightly.

Every either sex or bull hunt in units 2, 10 and 201, plus muzzleloader in 1 and 61 and early rifle in 1 were all part of the hybrid draw (Have I told you unit 1 is fool’s gold yet? Most folks have no idea it is not on par with 2, 10 or 201, with harvest stats similar to standard crowd controlled draw units.). Several either sex RFW tags and the Bosque Del Oso hunts were also included. On average, the preference points required went up at least 1 point for nonresidents in these hunts and in some cases, the resident preference points also increased. Remember, the hunts requiring 6 or more resident points have an 80/20 resident to noresident tag allocation split, not the standard 65/35. So it stands to reason that across the board, the hybrid units would have an increase in nonresident preference points required. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the northwest trophy units that jumped in points the most, but the 3rd season special Bosque Del Oso hunt (unit 851), going from 13 resident and 15 nonresident points to 15 resident and 19 nonresident points. If you average the point increases for all the hybrid eligible hunts, on average they increased 1.36 points.

Ok, so the hybrid units take even more points to draw now. What are the odds of drawing a hybrid tag with fewer than the required minimum points? Let’s look at unit 2 early rifle: Unit 2 went from requiring 16 resident and 18 nonresident preference points to 17 resident and 19 nonresident points. Unit 2 early rifle applicants increased from 1113 in 2009 to 1385 in 2010. Those applicants with just 5 points increased from 42 to 91, and total applicants with 5 or more points increased from 568 to 902 (58% increase) for the 0.5% (5 out of 902) chance of drawing one of the randomly allocated tags. 0-4 point applicants also went up 15% from 296 to 342. That increase in 5 or more point applicants could have sucked a lot of potential high point applicants out of other potential draws, but my guess is that it mostly just reduced the applicants applying for a preference point only. 2010 preference point only applicants went down from 65,782 in 2009 to 62,999 in 2010.

Unit 2 early rifle was typical of many of the hybrid draw hunts. So, what about the non hybrid trophy units? What happened to those? Looking just at non hybrid hunts in units 40, 76 and 61, plus the RFW bull and either sex hunts, on average they increased 0.5 points. So for the most part, point creep is still affecting these units. Only a few hunts required fewer points in 2010 compared to 2009. Unit 76 first rifle decreased from 6 resident and 10 nonresident points to 5 resident and 9 nonresident points. That may have had more to do with the DOW adding an early rifle hunt than with folks trying to draw a hybrid tag. Another big loser was the Silver Spur RFW hunt, going down from 11 points in 2009 to 7 in 2010. But those were exceptions; the point creep is still having an effect on these trophy units. Several of these hunts are nearing hybrid eligibility, and it’s hard to say how many additional applicants will choose to participate. It’s also possible that many high point applicants realized that they might never draw the Northwest trophy units while they are still healthy and mobile, so they put in for these slightly lower tier units. Unit 76 first rifle required 9 resident points last year, but the addition of an early rifle hunt has changed the dynamic. Unit 61 first rifle also required 9 resident points in 2009 and did not gain an early rifle hunt. I expected applicants to decide they would rather earn points while having a chance in the hybrid draw. Unit 61 first rifle season increased in nonresident points required in 2010, from 14 to 15, but total applicants were down from 1641 in 2009 to 1477 in 2010. Savvy applicants with 5 to 8 resident points and 5-13 nonresident points seemed the most logical to jump ship and apply for hybrid draw hunts with no chance of drawing unit 61 first rifle, but at least a slim chance of drawing a hybrid unit. Sure enough, residents with 5-8 points decreased from 387 to 267, and nonresidents with 5-13 points decreased from 283 to 181. It seems that no more than the normal number of applicants decided they were done waiting on a tag, and applied with up to 3 more points that required the year before.

Now, if you’re still with me and not bored to tears, is there a way to take advantage of the increase in applicants in the “holding pattern” of earning points in the hybrid draw? Possibly, but unlikely. There will have to be an increase in the tag quotas for these high demand non hybrid units. If you’re watching the population objective and status and sex ratios carefully, you may be able to anticipate an increase in tags and poach a tag from 76, 40 or 61 at some point with 1 or 2 points fewer than the previous year. But that’s the only reason I can contemplate applying for these units when you have 1 or 2 points below the minimum number of points. It’s also possible that the word about the hybrid draw has not fully gotten out yet, and more high point applicants will choose to take that route instead of continuing to apply for non hybrid hunts, thereby reducing the point requirements. It seems more likely that 40, 61 and 76 will soon become part of the hybrid draw as they reach 10 resident preference points for the muzzleloader and early rifle hunts (61 is there already).

Alright, so what effect did the new muzzleloader tag system have on the draw? For starters, the cow tags that only had a moderate chance of drawing in 2009 with a 2nd choice, are for the most part available as leftovers this year, despite no real increase. It seems many applicants tried to apply for bull or either sex muzzleloader tags with 1st, 2nd or 3rd choices, instead applying for the cow tag with a second choice as they usually do. To illustrate: in 2009, there were 13,068 applications for the statewide muzzleloader bull tag which required 0 points for residents (but only about 15% chance of drawing with 0 points) and 2 points for nonresidents, and about 20% of those applicants applied with 2nd choice or later with no chance of drawing. Conversely, in units 6/16/17/161/171, the either sex muzzleloader tag now requires 1 resident point and 3 nonresidents points, yet 32% of applicants applied with 2nd choices or later. Now maybe that was because this tag was now either sex instead of bull only. But units 80/81 had a similar phenomenon with a bull only tag, as the resident and nonresident points increased 1 point each, and 32% of applicants also applied with 2nd or later choices and no chance of drawing. And what about the OTC rifle units that were not part of the statewide muzzleloader tag in 2009 like that Flat Tops and Bear’s Ears? Both units had point requirements increase, by 1 each for residents and nonresidents in the Flat Tops and 1 point for nonresidents in the Bear’s Ears. So, if several units increased their point requirements, it stands to reason that some must have decreased unless there was some sudden surge in muzzleloading interest. Sure enough, two units did decrease in their point requirements, and another two units increased in the resident point requirement, while decreasing the nonresident point requirement.

Below is a list of former statewide units that had a net increase in points required (either resident or nonresident or both):

  • 6/16/17/161/171
  • 14/214
  • 15/27
  • 18/181
  • 21/22/30/31/32
  • 25/26/34/231
  • 28/37/371
  • 38
  • 53
  • 54
  • 70/71/72/73/711
  • 74/741
  • 80/81
  • 551

Below are the two former statewide units that had a net decrease in points required:

  • 35/36/361
  • 86/691/861

Below are the two former statewide units with no net change, but increased in resident point requirements, yet decreased in nonresident points required:

  • 3/301
  • 59

Interestingly, the loss of the statewide muzzleloader tag may have cleared up confusion with previous applicants who did not understand the system, and chose to apply to crowd controlled units. Units 48, 56, 57/58, and 69/84 all had a net loss of points required. The preference point requirements might not stabilize for several years as savvy applicants chase list B cow tags with 2nd, 3rd or 4th choices and fewer applicants apply for bull and either sex tags with 2nd or later choices. I’d venture to guess that list A cow tags will continue to be had with 3rd, 4th and leftover choices for the foreseeable future, while the list B cow tags eventually go back to only being available with 2nd choices.

It’s difficult to put a finger on what happened with the limited archery tags in 54, 55 and 551. Each of these units had the previous archery hunter numbers reduced by nearly 40%, so it’s surprising they are available as leftovers. There were probably several factors at play leading up to the draw. It appears that many residents chose not to be limited to a single unit, as nonresidents outdrew residents in 54 by a margin of 102 to 157, but residents preferred the better access and slightly closer units of 55 and 551 by a combined margin of 353 to 202. That makes sense as nonresidents will most likely have just one week to hunt, and residents might hunt 2 or 3 weekends out of the month long season. The majority of Colorado’s population lives nearly 4.5 hours from those 3 units, so it seems likely that Gunnison residents were the majority of the residents who bothered with drawing those tags. I know several folks who hunt more than one unit during archery season and didn’t want to be tied down to going all the way to Gunnison every weekend. It’s also possible that many hunters still aren’t aware of the changes and intend to hunt their old units on the OTC archery tag. Although the tags are now available as leftovers, others were unsure whether they could be drawn as 1st or later choice tags. In 54, 14 applicants wasted 1 or 2 points each to guarantee the tag. Similar issues occurred in 55 and 551, with several hunters throwing away as many as 5 points for a tag that could be had as a leftover (of course they didn’t know that at the time). It’ll be interesting to note whether the leftovers are quickly picked up or if they continue to be available all season. It might take a full season of enforcement/reminders for hunters hunting on OTC tags to realize the new changes, or maybe the area will never see much significant archery demand again. If it’s an issue of awareness, with OTC hunters trying to hunt the Gunnison country, expect the tags to be harder to draw next year (but I’d still wager a second choice tag if I intended to hunt there). If the reason for the lack of interest is resident travel commitment, the tags will continue to be available as leftovers. And now what’s going to happen to the former OTC hunters who did hunt the Gunnison area? Were they mostly Front Range residents who will now continue to pressure the closest OTC units? Will they pile into neighboring units? There’s several hundred displaced hunters now.

So those are the biggies. There’s nothing we can do to change our applications for this year, but keep these affects in mind for this year’s leftovers and next year’s applications. You still cannot draw a second choice muzzleloader bull tag. Many bull and either sex muzzleloader tags had an increase in the preference points required for nonresidents. Only a few decreased the requirements, but that may not hold true for next year. We have cow muzzleloader tags available for the first time in several years. Don’t expect too many of those tags to fall to leftovers next year, especially List B tags. We know the preference point requirement for the Northwest trophy units will continue to increase. There will likely be a few more hunts added to the hybrid draw in the next several years. You may be able to get lucky and draw a non hybrid tag if you choose not to participate in the hybrid draws, which only give you a .5% chance of drawing. We won’t know what to make of the newly limited archery units in 54, 55 and 551 until we see whether the leftovers are quickly purchased or if they remain available throughout archery season.

I know this may have been tedious, but if you are trying to plan for future hunts, it helps to try to understand the effect of new regulations on tag demand.

Good luck out there.

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