Are Over the Counter Tags On Their Way Out?

By Kurt ThorsenApril 19, 2024

In September of 2023, I ventured south from my family cottage in Northern Wisconsin to the northwestern border of Kentucky in search of a public land whitetail hunting adventure with friends. Though the 14-hour drive was unpleasant, the over-the-counter tag buying experience, however, was not. 

From the comfort of my camp chair, I was able to purchase a hunting license and permits online and headed afield to some nearby public land that very afternoon. No need for a lottery system drawing, preference points or application deadlines. Just a guaranteed tag at my convenience. 

Are Over The Counter Tags On Their Way Out?

In August, I will venture to Northern Alaska for the journey of a lifetime, a Northern Brooks Range Caribou hunt. It’s another over-the-counter adventure I cannot wait to embark upon. 

Over-the-counter tags can offer an incredible opportunity to those willing to work hard for their success, and it certainly seems that lottery draws are becoming increasingly harder to secure. 

Over-the-counter tags often serve as a stepping stone to many hunters each season while they patiently wait their turn for their name to be drawn for a “coveted tag.”

While over-the-counter opportunities are abundantly available in some states for a variety of wild game, a dark cloud looms on the horizon above the over-the-counter option in others.

Recently, a stir has occurred in the west revolving around one state in particular, Colorado. A proposed tag allocation modifications by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife could ultimately end the over-the-counter elk hunting experience that they are notably known for as soon as the 2025 season if passed. 

Colorado has long been a keystone state for hunters in search of elk for many years. A state that is especially appealing to those who were not fortunate enough to draw a permit at a limited entry unit or state and are still in search of a wilderness adventure. It is an option that has allowed archery hunters, both resident and non-resident, access to several units by simply purchasing a permit over the counter. 

Dan Colorado bull

The proposal comes as the concerns from hunters has risen due to the overcrowding of hunters on public lands along with increased pressure on local elk herds. Hunter success has fallen and complaints of excessive hunting pressure driving game onto private lands has increased forcing the agency between a rock and a hard place. 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife recently released their recommendation for the 2025-2029 big game season structure which includes a termination of all over-the-counter elk archery licenses and manage them with limited entry units through an annual draw system to address these concerns. 

In the coming months the agency will review the proposal, engage in stakeholder meetings to address any concerns, and ultimately settle on a decision that would change the state’s hunting moving forward. 

Naturally, the proposal has sparked debates and propositions that are spreading well beyond The Centennial State. To gain some perspective on the matter I spoke with Dustin DeCroo, co-owner of Bighorn Outfitters, in Buffalo, Wyoming. 

When asked what his thoughts are on the subject and if he believes more states will opt out of the over-the-counter system, this was his response: “There are several reasons why states are starting to shy away from the over-the-counter tags,” Dustin stated. 

“Idaho, for example, is looking at ending their broken over-the counter tag system and shifting to a draw process mainly because of the online crashes non-residents experience in December during the mad dash for an over-the-counter tag.” 

Other states are experiencing overcrowding and lower hunter success rates just like Colorado. “Here in Wyoming, on average, we have experienced an increase in hunter application numbers over the last 8 years.” 

Dustin believes there are several contributing factors to this added pressure, one of which he believes is due to the capabilities of hunting apps like HuntStand and onX

“Before these apps, a lot of hunters didn’t know they could access much of the public ground without making a trip out here to get boots on the ground,” says DeCroo. “Today, you can pull up an app from across the country and make a game plan without having to take a single scouting trip.” 

I can take that theory a step further and admit that the internet has opened an entire realm of opportunities that many of us hunters, myself included, never thought possible. 

elk pack out

Simply type into the search bar on YouTube “DIY deer, elk, turkey hunting trip, etc.” and you are bound to find hundreds of videos showing you just that – how to travel hunt successfully. This gives many hunters the confidence to step outside of their comfort zone and experience new adventures that they otherwise would have never thought of trying. 

Dustin and I agreed the decisions several states are making are in the best interest for the wildlife populations and allows the agencies to regain some control over the management that they may have lost in the process of our evolving hunting community. 

 “I think it’s just a matter of time before states entirely abandon the over-the-counter system, for the western states especially. It’s a limited commodity.” Dustin concluded.

Western states are not the only ones feeling the pressure. In January of 2024, the Northwest Artic Regional Advisory Council called for an elimination of non-resident caribou hunting season in response to the continual decline of Alaska’s Western Artic caribou herd. 

A herd that is down nearly 65% from 2003. The state was tasked with a difficult decision after searching deep into the issue. 

After careful consideration, the state ultimately settled on shifting non-resident caribou hunters over to a limited draw for a bull tag as well as reducing the resident subsistence hunters in the Northwest to a bag limit up to 15 caribou a year, only one of those being a cow. 

This is a considerable change from the 5 caribou a day per person that it was prior. Their main objective was to limit the amount of cow caribou harvested and the Alaska Board of Game believes they are doing what’s right for the future sustainability of the herd.

dIY Carribou in alaska

As for the rest of the states, the withdrawal of over-the-counter tags doesn’t feel too far behind. Many of the same issues as stated above can be observed anywhere you hunt, for an entire suite of species. 

One could argue that the increase in land privatization and hunting ground leasing has left hunters no choice but to seek asylum on their public lands. This causes an influx of hunters and increased pressure on them, while harvest numbers for both deer and turkey in several states continually decline. 

I believe states such as Iowa and Kansas, long known for giant bucks and limited non-resident tag draws, will be the style of system that other states will eventually adopt over time. 

It seems to be a system that allows the agencies to regulate the number of hunters that visit each season while simultaneously growing big deer. A system that provides highly sought after tags year after year. 

One thing is for certain, as hunting strategies continue to evolve, so will state agencies’ tactics to ensure the hunters within them go home with as good of an experience as they can provide.

5 Common Ways Hunters Break The Rules

At the end of the day there is a lot of speculation involved in what “could” happen to the future of over-the-counter tags. Whether it’s due to overcrowded hunters, pressured public lands, a lack of quality game, new technologies or a combination of all the above, state agencies will have to assess the situation that they are in and come to an agreement on which tag allocation method to employ. 

The good news is several states still offer viable options for those in search of an over-the-counter adventure. Conduct some thorough research, do your homework, and take full advantage of what opportunities still exist. 

Depending on the species you plan to chase, you are bound to find one that scratches the adventure itch. Try your hand at a general-season elk tag in Utah. Perhaps a trip to Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, or Kentucky if a whitetail is the goal. 

Or if spring turkeys are on the brain, give Georgia, Montana, or Washington a shot for a memorable over-the-counter turkey hunting experience. Regardless, get out there and enjoy the adventure! 

There is a lot of speculation and factors that revolve around the future of the over-the-counter system. Do you agree? Has your state abandoned the system? 

What factors do you believe are contributing? Let us know in the comments!

Read this article: 10 Affordable Deer Hunting States

Kurt Thorsen
Kurt is a Wildlife Habitat Manager that graduated from UW-Stevens Point with a Bachelor's Degree in Wildlife Ecology, Research, and Management. He's a die-hard outdoorsman from Northwestern Illinois that's extremely passionate about chasing deer, turkeys, ducks, and sushi rolls!
Post a Comment
Login To Account

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *