Is the rising cost of big-game hunting shutting out new hunters?

Is the rising cost of big-game hunting shutting out new hunters?


Has big-game hunting once again become the exclusive privilege of the elite as it was in medieval England?

When one thinks of medieval England, perhaps the first things to come to mind are lofty images of knights in armor, looming castle walls, and nobles bedecked in colorful regalia observing a royal (pronounced with a heavily rolled R) joust. But the reality of the feudal era was much less agreeable to those who weren’t members of the ruling class. Vast disparities existed between the elite and their peasant subjects, among which was the right to hunt. The forests, moors, and wetlands—and all the game in them—belonged exclusively to the reigning monarch. The privilege to hunt such game as red deer, fallow deer, roe deer, and boar was granted only to those nobles in the king’s favor. Peasants, if caught poaching in these areas, could be subjected to horrific torture or execution. According to “Medieval Hunting” by Richard Almond, “The boar and especially the deer, were the noble quarry. The common people did not eat venison as they were not allowed to take deer.” By common people, he’s referring to the approximately 95 percent of the population who were peasants, the majority of whom were unfree, living and working in village communities.

Today, although no one runs the risk of summary execution for deer hunting, deep inequities remain between hunters of means and those without, particularly when it comes to pursuing big game out of state.

Buying your way to a hunt

Conservation is a noble goal, and one we should fully support as sportsmen and women. It comes at a tangible monetary cost—one largely met by licensing revenue—and we must recognize that, too. But when purchasing an out-of-state tag costs more than a monthly mortgage payment and is riddled with added costs such as habitat stamps, administrative and processing fees, search-and-rescue fees, “qualifying” (albeit unrelated) licenses, and lottery application fees, one may justifiably feel taken advantage of.

A bighorn sheep license for Montana residents runs for approximately 125 dollars. For out-of-state hunters? $1,250. Although one can respect giving residents the first go at hunting in their own backyards, selling tags to out-of-staters at 10 times the cost is predatory. Such a hunt becomes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity based on cost alone, and for many, it’s beyond the realm of possibility. Now, say you’re a nonresident hunting on national forest land or grasslands, which are supported by federal taxes we all pay: Shouldn’t you be able to do so at the same cost as a resident? If we all have an equal share in the cost, shouldn’t we get an equal share of the hunting opportunities, too? Of course, that’s not how it works.

The number of available tags for out-of-staters is often laughably small, too. If you seek to hunt pronghorn in South Dakota, for instance, you may come across a zone in which there are 400 tags available to residents but less than 10 for non-residents. If money is no concern, you can buoy your odds of drawing one of those exclusive tags by purchasing “preference points” or “bonus points.” You can either wait years to draw a tag, or you can buy your way to improved odds to speed things up. That’s certainly not favorable to hunters on a limited budget.

Don’t want to wait on an out-of-state hunt? If you have especially deep pockets, you can bid on a governor’s tag. Traditionally auctioned off or awarded to conservation organizations for fundraising events—these tags give the grantee unmitigated access (typically) to any zone in the state to take their prize. But it comes at a staggering cost. Given the exclusivity of the tag, the winning bids can range as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 2013, the Montana governor’s tag for bighorn sheep went for an unprecedented $480,000. Needless to say, if you’re not a hunter with a new Rolls Royce in the garage of your third home, you’re not likely to achieve success with this method.

But say you get lucky and you draw an exclusive tag right off the bat. In some cases, you must then hire a guide in order to pursue the game. If you intend to hunt goat, sheep, or grizzly bear in Alaska, for instance, you’re required to hire a guide, elevating an already-pricey hunt to one only financially accessible to an elite few.

The window for attainable game continues to shrink for all but the wealthy, essentially limiting the hunter of average means to pursuing only quarry found locally. Depending on where you live, that may not leave you with much game to choose from, which is a shame. We frequently lament the decline of hunter numbers and the diminishing of our sport, yet here is an enormous barrier to entry that’s going unrecognized. Unless, like in medieval England, you are royalty or of the aristocratic class, the costs associated with hunting may keep you from even getting started.

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