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Applying For A Non-Resident Elk License | Montana

By Ryan Bramlette, Ranch Sales, Licensed in MT

While quietly navigating the trails of Dancing Bear Ranch on a summer evening a few years back, a client and I came around a corner to see three mature Bull Elk proudly flaunting their velvet-covered antlers. Of course, that encounter got us talking about the hunting and triggered a conversation around nonresident Elk tags in Montana. What I have provided below is a high-level summary of our discussion and my basic understanding of the topic.


To start, each elk-hunting unit is a defined geographical region within the state. Each unit is managed differently, respective to factors such as the population and health of the overall elk herd, bull to cow ratio, and if the unit is being managed for quality or quantity. 


Because units are managed differently, a new hunter to Montana should understand that Montana has two main types of tags. General Licenses are used for hunting general Elk, general Deer, Mountain Lion, Wolf and Bear. Special Permits are designated for special Elk, special Deer, special Mountain Lion districts, Antelope, Mountain Goats, Moose, and Bighorn Sheep. The availability of these tags is dependent on which unit you would like to hunt and what weapon (typically archery or rifle) you would like to hunt with. Many units will only require general licenses for archery and rifle, and some units will be special permit only. Others may be a combination of both. 


In addition to the different types of tags, a hunter should be familiar with the difference between bonus points and preference points, as Montana uses them both. For a nonresident to hunt the general license Elk units in Montana, he or she must apply for the Elk Combination License in the general license draw, where the preference point system is used. If you want to apply for a special Elk permit, you must fill out an additional special permit application during the same application process. The special permit application uses a bonus point system and is only valid if you first draw the Elk combination general license.


In the preference point system, Montana allocates 75% of the nonresident tags to nonresident hunters with more than one preference point and 25% of the nonresident tags to nonresident hunters with zero preference points. If a nonresident hunter applies for an Elk combination tag and does not draw, they can purchase a preference point ($100) for the following year(s). A potential hunter can accrue no more than three preference points over a three-year time period, and applications for preference points need to be in consecutive years, or they all go away. 


The state of Montana also accepts party applications and allows for up to five hunters per party. In a party application, the state recognizes fractured points and awards licenses to the highest number of preference points each hunter has in descending order. For example, three hunters make a party application, one hunter has 1 point, a second hunter has 1 point, and the third hunter has 2 points. The points are added together to equal 4 points and then divided by three for the number of applicants. The total fractured preference points for each hunter would be 1.33. The applicants would be awarded a license before an applicant with < 1.33 pts. The exception is a client who will be hunting with an outfitter. In this scenario, a nonresident hunter can purchase two preference points in any year they are hunting with an outfitter. Outfitter clients must all be guided by outfitters guides, and all lands hunted must be put in the outfitter operation plans.


For special permits, the bonus point system is used. A bonus point system is simple in that your name goes in the draw one extra time for every bonus point you have. You can obtain bonus points through purchase if you are unsuccessful in your special permit draw. Because Montana “squares” their Bonus points, a hunter who has not drawn for five consecutive years would have their name in the hat 25 extra times for an upcoming draw, and while someone with no points can draw a special permit, the individual with the higher amount of bonus points has greater odds of drawing the special permit. 


One last topic that needs to be discussed is Landowner Preference Tags. In Montana, 15% of a hunting districts quota is set aside for Deer B (doe), Cow Elk tags, Antelope and Special Permit Bull Elk and Deer A (buck) tags, for landowners owning or contracting to purchase at least 640 acres for Elk, or 160 acres for Deer. The applicant can be the owner, a blood-related family member, or a W2 employee. Each landowner can make one application in the landowner pool of permits per year. Worth noting, these Landowner Preference Tags are only applicable within the Hunting District where the landowner owns the land. Therefore, if the landowner owns land in a general draw area, such as HD 334, where the Arrow Ranch and Moose Creek Sanctuary are located, there is no reason to apply for a special permit Bull Elk tag through Landowner Preference. Bottom line, while Landowner Preference Tags certainly do not guarantee a nonresident landowner a tag, their odds are increased for special permit tags within the hunting district they own land.  


The deadline for a nonresident to apply for tags is around the first of April, and the full license fee of just over $1000 for an elk/deer combo license will not be charged until you draw.


While the application process in Montana can be convoluted, taking the time to understand the ins and outs of the nonresident elk hunting application process is worth it. Equipping yourself with the appropriate knowledge will allow you to experience heart-pumping encounters with world-class animals in some of the most beautiful landscapes ever drawn up by mother nature.  

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