Colorado Preference Points Demystified

What are preference points?

Colorado issues both unlimited over-the-counter licenses and limited licenses for elk, bear, and turkey. All deer, moose, sheep, and goat hunts are available only through the limited license draw. Limited licenses are limited in many aspects beyond just quantity of licenses available. They are limited to: a specific species, sex, Game Management Unit (GMU), hunt date, and manner of take. The limited draw is basically a weighted lottery. However, you can get preference in the lottery drawing through the preference point system.

Why does Colorado have a preference point system?

In a state with an estimated elk population of 264,170 (2011) animals and an estimated deer population of 417,950 (2011), you may wonder why getting a desirable big game limited license can be so difficult. Well, consider that Colorado is the hunt destination of choice for many out-of-state big game hunters. If there were no limits, the number of all interested nonresident and resident hunters pursuing game would far outweigh the number of game available to sustain future populations. In 2013 the total number of big game limited license applications was 468,816. That’s an increase of over 17,000 (4%) from the previous year. Colorado also issues over-the-counter elk and turkey licenses to both residents and nonresidents. Combine over-the-counter licenses with limited licenses and you have a lot of hunters to manage.

How does the limited license draw work?

Some limited license hunts are very popular and require a minimum number of accumulated preference points to be eligible for a specific hunt. If you have accumulated the minimum number of preference points to be eligible for the hunt, your application is given a six-digit randomized number and placed in the pool of eligible applicants. The lower your randomized number in the draw the better chance you have getting drawn.

Just because you have accumulated the minimum required preference points for a given hunt, you are not guaranteed a tag. The available quota determines how many licenses are available.

Dave Buchanan of Colorado Hunter states, “the deer and elk drawing ratio is under a ‘soft-cap,’ meaning both residents and nonresidents are guaranteed up to, but not necessarily all, 65 or 35 percent of the draw licenses, depending on the unit. But how much of that soft-cap quota is reached depends on how many preference points the other side holds.”

Other than resident and nonresident quotas, there are landowner and youth quotas to consider. According to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website, “for a species that is eligible for landowner preference, up to 15% of the general quota is allocated to the landowners. Registered landowners receive a number of acreage applications based upon the number of deeded acres owned.” In some cases there are more landowner applications for a particular hunt than available licenses. In that case landowners are not guaranteed a license and are selected through the randomized draw.

How do I get preference points?

You earn a preference point when you apply and are unsuccessful in drawing your first-choice hunt code. You can also just apply directly for a preference point (as your first-choice), and start accumulating them for future hunts. For elk, you are limited to one preference point per year. For turkey, you can accumulate two preference points per year - one in the Spring draw and one in the Fall drawing.

In the military and serving overseas? You may be eligible for Military Preference Points.


What is the best strategy?

Your optimal strategy depends on your hunting goals. If you are hunting just to fill the freezer, you don’t really have to worry about preference points. There are many limited license and over-the-counter opportunities that require zero preference points. However, if you are after a trophy animal or think you might be interested in hunting for a trophy animal one day, you should start applying for preference points.

The most common scenario for nonresidents is to collect preference points. Nonresident hunters usually don’t hunt Colorado every year, and they are more willing than residents to skip hunting a few years in order to save up for their dream hunt. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) discovered that more than 77% of all nonresident elk hunters (and 79% of nonresident deer hunters) used only their first-choice on their applications, opting for a preference point instead of selecting the second through fourth choices. (needs work and citation)

In comparison, 45% of resident elk hunters (42.5% of deer hunters) were first-choice applicants with 34 percent of both elk and deer hunters taking that second choice license. (needs work and citation) Resident hunters are, generally, not content to sit out the upcoming season, and they will apply for hunts that allows them to hunt year after year.

So, if you are a resident hunter that might like to hunt for a trophy animal one day but you generally hunt to fill the freezer, here are two popular resident hunt strategies that work until you're ready to cash in your points:

Resident Hunt Strategies

Plan A Strategy

  1. Apply for a preference point as your first-choice.
  2. Apply for a second, third, and fourth-choice (A and B hunts).
  3. Check the Leftover Draw option box.

Plan B Strategy

  1. Apply only for a preference point as your first-choice.
  2. Check the Leftover Draw option box.
  3. Hunt with a fall over-the-counter (OTC) license.
  4. Read "Plan B"Licenses: Limited and Leftover

How many preference points do you have?

Check your preference point balance on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website using:

  • DOB and CID#OR
  • DOB, Last Name, and Zip Code

2013 Elk: Preference Point as First-choice

67,668 (34.87%)
Total hunters put as first-choice

26,095 (23.40%)
Residents put as first-choice

37,792 (50.07%)
Nonresidents put as first-choice

3,781 (53.88%)
Youth put as first-choice

2013 Deer: Preference Point as First-choice

52,543 (31.67%)
Total hunters put as first-choice

21,002 (19.62%)
Residents put as first-choice

28,796 (52.19%)
Nonresidents put as first-choice

2,743 (75.25%)
Youth put as first-choice

Posted: January 20, 2014