Public land hunting offers a wide variety of opportunities for both residential and non-residential hunters in many states.
Public hunting areas are literally everywhere, but some offer better hunting opportunities than others. When considering a state to hunt on public land, there are three major factors to take into consideration. The first, is the amount of public land that is open to hunting in that particular state. Secondly, what species of animal are you looking to hunt. And lastly, what is the process of getting a hunting license or tag in that state?
If you are a resident of the following states, your opportunities will be more abundant than non-residents who must go through the draw or lottery process of obtaining a tag for certain species. Be sure to do your full research on a state and all its rules, laws, and processes before heading out to hunt. Many of the states’ fish and wildlife departments are a great help in guiding people through the process of hunting public land. Today’s article is not focused on that.
Today we simply wish to give you some ideas and basic information on four of the best states to consider for public land hunting. These states offer a variety of big game animals to pursue and hunting access opportunities abound on public ground.
Truly a wilderness frontier and wildlife experience, Alaska offers the most abundant amount of public land in the United States, coming in with over 271 million acres of open hunting land. That is almost 75% of the entire state of Alaska. Although it goes without saying, a lot of those areas are going to be very far off the beaten track and are not for the faint of heart.
Alaska offers the widest variety of big game species available to hunt on public land. They include bison, moose, caribou, elk, muskox, Dall sheep, Sitka deer, mountain goats, and a variety of predators like black and brown bears as well as wolves. For a big game hunter, Alaska is a paradise of options and opportunities, albeit options that will hit you harder in the wallet than other parts of the country.
For non-resident hunters, they must enter into a draw/lottery in order to obtain tags for big game species. These tags come with a hefty price tag. Alaska also requires a guide or hunting with a relative for species such as bears, dall sheep, and mountain goats. Some tags, like bison, are considered a “once-in-a-lifetime” type of tag where it may take 10-20 years to draw the tag and once you do, that’s it. Successful on your hunt or not, you can never draw one again. Better make the most of the opportunity!
Although Montana is only ranked tenth in the United States in terms of public land with only 30 million acres open to hunters, it’s another state that offers a wider variety of species of animals to hunt. The nice thing about Big Sky country is the ease of access and terrain that is much more hunter friendly than the likes of the Alaskan wilderness, especially for those living in the lower 48. A vast majority of Montana’s public land is located on the western and southwestern side of the state closest to Idaho.
Like Alaska though, Montana offers a wide variety of big game species that are open to hunting. These include: mountain goats, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, elk, bison, mule deer, whitetail deer, moose, mountain lions, turkey, wolves, and black bears. Prices for hunting these species are a bit more manageable compared to Alaska’s tag prices, but it seems that the bigger the animal and the smaller the population of that species, the higher the price tag.
Montana is also a draw state and has somewhat of a complicated application process in that you must apply for a general draw before you can enter a special, limited-entry draw. But Montana does give you the opportunity to buy bonus points that will help with your odds to draw a tag for your species of interest. Again, do your homework. Keep in mind some of these tags, like the bighorn sheep, take some hunters years or even decades to be successful in drawing.
Idaho comes in at number four on the amount of public land list with almost 35 million acres of land open to hunting. This land accounts for approximately 65% of the state being open to public land hunting. It is a very mountainous region, meaning more extreme hunting conditions for hunters to traverse in search of their game species. That terrain also helps Idaho house strong herds of mountain dwelling species over a majority of the state.
Idaho is home to the big three species of hunting with moose, elk, and mule deer. There are also antelope, Dall sheep, mountain goats, and black bears that are open. While Idaho doesn’t have as many species as our previous two states, it has more affordable prices with more abundant public land options statewide.
Drawing a tag in Idaho is not as complex as Montana, but it does have some nuances to it. Non-residents are only eligible for 10% of the state’s total tags for each species, which is a pretty common practice across most western states. The downside is Idaho does not currently have a bonus or preference point system to help your odds. The upside to that is that gives everyone more equal opportunity to draw a tag regardless of how long you’ve been trying. There are over-the-counter (OTC) tags available for some species like elk. Although it’s worth noting that the best areas often sell out fast, so it’s best to buy as soon as they go on sale.
Colorado has over 23 million acres of hunting accessible public land, accounting for 35% of the state’s land that is open to hunting. Colorado has a wide range of climate and terrain types, allowing for the hunting of different species. Colorado has become a public land hunting hot spot over recent years, mostly due to its abundant herd sizes.
Elk is the most popular species hunted in Colorado, as it is home to the country’s largest elk herd. But other species are hunted there as well, such as mule deer, antelope, moose, mountain goat, Dall sheep, and Black Bear. Colorado has the most wallet friendly prices on their hunting tags, which is a leading case in Colorado rising to the top of hunter friendly states.
Drawing for tags in Colorado is a bit more simple than other states and for deer and elk, up to 35% of all tags can be taken by non-residents. For all other species, it is limited to 10%. Colorado does have a well organized preference point system that allows hunters to gain better odds, but for rarer species like goats and sheep, you must build up to three preference points before being entered into a draw.
For species like elk and deer, Colorado is popular for having OTC tags available after the draws. This allows for more non-residents to access hunting tags for Colorado. Although we should mention you might face more hunting pressure in public access areas with OTC tags than the draw areas. It’s not impossible to kill big bucks and bulls in places with a lot of OTC tags, but it’s definitely more challenging, especially for bowhunters.
There are a few honorable mentions to this list that we don’t want you to miss out on. These include Wyoming, Arizona, and Utah.
Wyoming has long been a popular state, but recently the number of tags available through draw have decreased drastically, making it harder to obtain tags. It is still worth checking out the Equality State, but unless you have preference points built up, it may take a little longer to get a tag there.
Arizona and Utah are both states coming to the forefront for public land hunting. Most overlook these states because they are regarded as desert states. However, they both offer healthy deer and robust elk populations along with other big game animals. Arizona is also becoming extremely popular for their Javelina and Turkey seasons which are fairly cheap for non-residents.
Consider what species you would like to hunt, explore the application and draw processes of each state, and then get to planning the dream hunt you have always envisioned. Hunting in public areas usually requires more time, effort, and most importantly, homework than you might put into a hunt on private land. The end results are worth it when you’re finally standing over the animal you’ve always wanted. Through the great opportunity of public land across our country, there are many great opportunities to make your big game hunting dreams come true.
READ MORE: A MESSAGE TO A NEW GENERATION OF HUNTERS
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