| Dec. 9, 2019 | Hunt Research

Each application season nonresident elk and deer hunters in Montana need to grapple with not only a complex application process but also 2 different point systems. Understanding these point systems and the numbers behind them is unfortunately not as simple as one would hope. The primary intent of this article is to provide a more detailed explanation of preference points and how they might impact you in the 2021 General/Combo tag drawing.

Let's quickly review the basic tag requirements for nonresident elk and deer hunters in Montana. (skip overview)

Montana Elk/Deer Tag Basics

Montana has 2 distinct categories of elk/deer license: General (referred to as "Combo" licenses) and Permits (a special tag that let's you hunt in a specific area).

Holders of a General/Combo tag in Montana may hunt in the majority, but not all, of Montana's different hunt districts/units distributed throughout the state. Specific regulations may vary slightly from unit to unit but overall you are allowed to hunt any of the general units if you are the holder of a General/Combo license.

Permits are good for a single unit or small group of units and have a limited amount of availability. Typically this makes them harder to get in the drawing but often the quality of the hunt experience can be better and the potential to harvest a trophy is improved. It is not a requirement to apply for a Permit - you are free to only apply for a General/Combo tag if you choose to do so.

Each of these 2 license categories have their own drawing. One important thing to understand is that in order to be eligible to draw a Permit, you must first successfully draw a General/Combo license. If you fail to do so your application is ineligible in the Permit drawing.

Additionally, each of these 2 license categories have their own point system. For nonresidents the General/Combo drawing uses a preference point system and the Permit drawing uses a bonus point system. These point systems are optional - it is not required that you participate. If you don't participate you will save money but your chances of drawing a tag will typically not increase as much year to year.

For those unfamiliar, preference points act as sort of a place in line during a drawing. The applicants with the most preference points are at the front of the line and are selected before applicants with less points. Bonus points on the other hand are roughly equivalent to holding a number of raffle tickets in a random drawing. The more tickets (bonus points) you have, the greater your chances. But having the most bonus points is not a guarantee you will draw successfully.

Before we move on to General/Combo tag preference points, a quick word about Permit bonus points In Montana. During the Permit drawing your total number of bonus points are squared. So if you have 5 total bonus points, you get 25 chances in the Permit drawing. The draw odds that we show in our Montana data are based on this and reflect your chances to draw considering every applicant's bonus point total in aggregate.

But as previously stated, a nonresident needs to first successfully draw a General/Combo license in order to be eligible for a Permit. The remainder of this article is about preference points and other important factors concerning the General/Combo license drawing.

Preference Points and General/Combo Licenses

Historically the nonresident General/Combo licenses were fairly easy to draw, even with 0 preference points. Unfortunately this is no longer the case. Demand for these tags has steadily increased over the last few years and in 2019 there were a significant number of applicants with preference points who were unsuccessful. Here are the 2019 raw totals courtesy of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks:

Tag Type # of Points # of Applicants # of Successes % Success
Big Game Combo 0 5592 3057 54.7%
Big Game Combo 1 12440 9577 77%
Big Game Combo 2 869 869 100%
Big Game Combo 3 3 3 100%
Totals: 18904 13506 71.4%
Elk Combo 0 2147 1227 57.1%
Elk Combo 1 2999 2247 74.9%
Elk Combo 2 223 223 100%
Elk Combo 3 2 2 100%
Totals: 5371 3699 68.9%
Deer Combo 0 5686 2443 42.8%
Deer Combo 1 6493 6493 100%
Deer Combo 2 336 336 100%
Deer Combo 3 4 4 100%
Totals: 12519 9276 74.1%
Landowner Deer Combo 0 1019 1019 100%
Landowner Deer Combo 1 4 4 100%
Totals: 1023 1023 100%


2020 Tag Type # of Points # of Applicants # of Successes % Success
Big Game Combo 0 3660 2395 65.4%
Big Game Combo 1 10900 7446 68.5%
Big Game Combo 2+ 2982 2982 100%
Totals: 17542 12843 73.2%
Elk Combo 0 1678 1102 65.6%
Elk Combo 1 3101 2130 68.6%
Elk Combo 2+ 924 924 100%
Totals: 5703 4156 72.8%
Deer Combo 0 4338 2452 56.5%
Deer Combo 1 8490 6638 78.1%
Deer Combo 2+ 778 778 100%
Totals: 13606 9868 72.5%
Landowner Deer Combo 0 882 882 100%
Landowner Deer Combo 1 6 6 100%
Totals: 888 888 100%

Note that the General/Big Game Combo (Deer+Elk) and the General/Elk Combo licenses are listed separately on the report. But one important detail to understand is that these 2 licenses come from the same overall quota. The starting nonresident quota for these 2 license types is 17,000 in total. So it doesn't matter if there are 15,000 Big Game combos and 2,000 Elk Combos issued, or vice versa, the total quota is 17,000 for these 2 tag types. And because of that, the draw odds for these 2 tag types are effectively the same. There is no real draw odds advantage to initially apply for an Elk Combo over a Big Game Combo even though the Big Game Combo has more applicant demand.

The General/Deer combo has a starting quota of 4600, but they ended up issuing 9276 tags. To understand what is going on here you need to consider 2 other factors: the Landowner Sponsored/Deer Combo, which had a starting quota of 2000, and the number of Elk Combo licenses issued. To get to 9276, you add up the initial quota (4600), the number of leftover un-issued Sponsored/Deer Combo tags (977), and the total number of Elk Combo tags issued (3699). Think of the Elk Combo add-ins as the "catch up" mechanism to guarantee that the total number of general deer tags issued achieves the overall objective.

Another aspect of this report that doesn't immediately make sense is the fact that there are a lot of 0 preference point applicants that were successful, and a lot of 1 preference point applicants who were not. In a pure preference point system this wouldn't happen - so what is going on here?

The answer is that 25% of all nonresident General/Combo licenses are reserved for applicants with 0 points. So if you have any number of preference points, you're not eligible to draw that 25% (assuming current demand). This aspect of the draw is unique to Montana and can be a source of confusion to nonresident applicants. This also makes for a rather unique scenario that could happen in 2020: you may have as good or better odds to draw with 0 preference points as you do with 1 preference point. UPDATE: Turned out to be very, very close! 65.4% with 0 points, 68.5% with 1 point in the 2020 draw.

That realization also helps at least partially explain another quirky aspect of the Montana system: if you don't buy preference points at the time of your application, you can't buy them later in the points only period. The points only period is valid only for those that didn't actually apply.

In Montana preference points can be used in the immediate draw upon purchase. In most other states if you purchase a point at the time of the application those points only benefit you the following draw year (assuming your current year tag application was unsuccessful).

If Montana allowed you to apply for a General tag with no preference points, and then allowed you to purchase a preference point after the draw, you would essentially be double dipping. In that scenario you'd get the chance to draw a General/Combo tag in the 0 point pool - where the odds could be comparable / better than having 1 point - without paying the $50 preference point fee. If they then allowed you to buy a preference point later (if unsuccessful in the initial draw) you'd get the added benefit of carrying that point into next year's draw. By not allowing you to do this, they are basically forcing you to pick your poison and in a way restricting preference point creep.

So if you are going into the 2021 draw with 0 preference points, understand that buying an optional $50 point may not have a significant impact on your chance to draw in 2021. But it should make a real difference in 2022 if you're unsuccessful this application season.

Lastly, be aware that you can only buy preference points without actually applying for a General/Combo license for 2 consecutive years. If you do not actually apply for a license for 3 consecutive years (ie you are acquiring points during the points only period) you will lose ALL of your preference points. In addition, you will also lose your preference points if successfully drawn for a General/Combo license even if you request a refund for that license at the time of your Permit application or at any other later date.

Any General/Combo licenses returned for refund are reissued after the initial drawing via the use of a nonresident alternate's list (more information here).

The Montana application period for deer and elk typically begins around the 3rd week of February and ends on March 15. As always, best of luck in the draws!