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Rich Landers: Big-game hunters weigh their odds

It’s the gambling season for Washington big-game hunters.

They’re sizing up dream hunt areas, analyzing the odds and figuring how many applications they can afford at $6.50 a pop – an increase of $1 from last year.

Sportsmen have until May 18 to apply for special big-game hunting permits for deer, elk, moose, cougar, mountain goat, bighorn sheep and turkey.

The cost of applying wasn’t a big factor until last year, when the Fish and Wildlife Department introduced a new permit drawing system featuring multiple application categories for each species.

For example, a hunter previously was allowed to make one special permit application for each species.

Under the system introduced in 2010, a hunter could apply in up to seven deer categories that included quality, buck, antlerless, youth, senior, disabled, master hunter and second deer.

Under this system, the total number of applications increased by 60 percent.

That boosted the agency’s permit application revenue by $492,213, which officials say is earmarked for hunter-access programs.

Beyond that, the benefits to hunters are not so clear.

Any increases in application success rates are hard to analyze since the increase in permit categories coincided with a decrease in permits available for deer and elk.

Dave Ware, WDFW Game Division manager, said only 46 comments were received last year when the new system was proposed. Most hunters seemed to welcome the new system, especially the provision that transferred hunters’ 2009 bonus drawing points to all categories for which they chose to apply in 2010.

The losers in the new system were those who drew special permits in 2009. They had no bonus points to carry into any category for that species.

But consider a hunter who carried over eight points from 2009 and applied for deer categories quality, buck and antlerless. If he drew a 2010 antlerless tag, he would start from scratch in that category this year, but he’d have nine bonus points in the quality and buck categories for 2011.

Some overly lucky hunters drew multiple tags for a single species last year. (Specifically, 673 of the 9,002 deer permits offered went to people who drew more than one tag. The same goes for 311 of the 6,602 elk tags, one of the 294 cougar tags and three of the 138 moose tags.)

With the exception of the second deer tags, these multiple-tag holders could harvest only one animal last season, but they lost bonus points for all of the categories they drew.

Ware said hunters should factor in the possibility of drawing multiple tags for a single species when they apply. For example, hunters might apply for categories with staggered seasons, enabling them to participate in the first season and then the second if necessary should they draw two permits.

Another possibility: Apply for buck/bull and antlerless categories in a single Game Management Unit. In some cases, this might allow a multiple-tag holder to enjoy a rare either-sex hunt.

Savvy sportsmen also pay close attention to their use of bonus points. Most hunters who apply for permits have fewer than two points. Once a deer or elk hunter gets three points, he has better odds than two-thirds of all applicants.

But the odds still are slim to draw a highly coveted hunt tag with fewer than seven points.

The recently released 2011 big-game hunting regulations offer a new tidbit of information for hunters to consider before making their applications. A column at the end of each hunt choice tells the number of applicants in 2010 plus the average number of bonus points those applicants had.

The average success rate for drawing a deer tag last year was 12 percent, but the figure ranged widely by category. Here are numbers for the percent of applicants drawn by deer category:

Quality 4 percent, antlerless 8 percent, buck 9, senior 18, disabled 25, master hunter 27, youth 30 and second tag 31.

“Generally, the odds got worse for deer antlerless permits under the new system, which coincided with fewer permits,” Ware said. “And generally they also dropped for buck hunts, such as the Palouse modern firearms hunt, where 41 percent of the applicants drew tags in 2009 compared with 35 percent in 2010.”

The odds for drawing a quality hunt improved, but the competition continued to be intense.

For example, the odds for getting a quality hunt tag for the 49 Degrees North modern firearms hunt doubled – but only from 1 percent to 2 percent.

On the bright side for hunters on the bottom of the bonus points heap, odds will dramatically improve over the next three years.

“A lot of hunters brought high point totals to a number of categories at the start of the new system,” Ware said. “As those hunters are drawn and zero out, the point averages for applicants in each category will go down.”

Indeed, if you live long enough and accumulate enough points, applying for a big-game permit is just a few odds short of a sure thing.

Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email

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