Bonus Points vs Preference Points Understanding the Draw

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This article is geared towards non-resident hunters. 

Every state operates a bit differently, but all fall within three general categories:

  • A true lottery system, which provides no bonus points or preference points of any kind
  • A bonus point system, which provides applicants who have acquired bonus points extra chances to draw a tag
  • A preference point system
Some states offer a bonus point system to residents and a preference point system to non-residents.  In states that do this, we will discuss the preference point system and how it effects out of state hunters.

Supply and demand dictate the allocation of big game tags to hunters. 

States conduct population surveys to determine how many of a particular species can be removed without a negative impact on the overall population. This is done in conjunction with population trends and hunter success rates, and then the number of tags for each species is determined.

With whitetail deer in the eastern United States, the supply of deer is sufficient to accommodate the total demand of hunters. So tags are issued over the counter.  If there is a cap on the total number, they are sold on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Taking a look at the different tag allocation systems, we’re using hypothetical game management unit (GMU) 77A (not a real GMU, just an example) in Arizona with a Mule Deer population of 2,500. Managers and biologists determine that the herd can support harvesting of 300 bucks without harming the overall herd health. With a historical hunter success rate of 50 percent in that GMU, managers can safely issue 600 buck tags and stay within their management goals.

What happens when demand exceeds supply? 

Let’s imagine that 1,000 hunters want to hunt mule deer in that particular GMU with only 600 tags available. So if the over-the-counter method is not being used, a general lottery system is used, which are generally either true lotteries, bonus point systems or a preference point system.  


True Lottery 

A true lottery is where each applicant for a specific tag has the exact same odds of a successful draw. This holds true whether it is the first time a hunter has applied, or the thirtieth. No advantage is given to hunters who have applied in previous draws.

Going back to our example from above. If there are 600 tags available, and 1,800 hunters apply, each applicant has a 33.33% chance of a successful draw.  If a Hunter A has applied unsuccessfully for the past 5 years, and a Hunter B applies for the first time, both have an equal chance at pulling a tag. Alaska, Idaho, and New Mexico use a pure lottery system for issuing big game tags.

Bonus Points

The bonus point system rewards repeat applicants. Each year a hunter who is unsuccessful in drawing a tag for a particular species, the hunter receives a bonus point for that animal. Then the next year that hunter’s name goes into the drawing an additional time for each bonus point he or she has accumulated.

For example, a hunter with one bonus point gets two chances to draw a tag. 

Using Arizona Mule Deer Unit 77A as a hypothetical, Hunter A -who has put in for the 5 previous years- has six chances to pull a tag (one for each of the previous years and one for the current year). Hunter B would only have a single chance for a tag. 

Arizona, Nevada, and Maine use bonus point systems for some tag allocations. It’s important to note that under a bonus points system all hunters who apply -even first-time applicants without bonus points- have a chance to draw a tag, though statistically lower than repeat applicants. Once a first-choice tag is drawn, all bonus points return to zero.

Bonus Points (Squared)

Both Montana and Washington increase a hunter’s odds of drawing by squaring bonus points; so if you’ve accumulated 2 bonus points, your name goes into the draw an additional four times plus one for the current year, which gives you five total chances at a tag.

Again, in our hypothetical Arizona Mule Deer Unit 77A  with a squared system (Arizona doesn’t square points, but we’re going to use it for the sake of  a consistent example), Hunter A -who has applied each year for the past 5 years- has 26 chances to pull a tag (5² from previous years + 1 for the current year). Hunter B has a single chance for a tag. So, while both have a chance, Hunter A is statistically much more likely at a successful draw.

Preference Points

Preference points are also used to reward repeat applicants. Each year, unsuccessful applicants gain a preference point.

Bonus points and preference points differ in that a preference point system automatically allocates all or some of the available tags to those hunters who have accumulated the most points. If there are more hunters with preference points that exceed the threshold than the number of available permits, allocation would start with the highest point holders first and work down until all tags are allocated.

Unlike a bonus points system, hunters who do not meet a minimum points threshold have no statistical chance of drawing a tag. But, like the bonus point system, a hunter’s preference points return to zero once a first-choice tag is drawn. California, Colorado, Wyoming and Pennsylvania are examples of states that use the preference point system to issue some big game tags.

Final Thoughts

Regardless of your feelings toward the different draw systems, they directly impact your big game hunting throughout much of the United States.  Learn to appreciate the different draw processes and use them to your advantage. Carefully study the information aggregated by Hunts Plus or state and federal agency’s websites. You’ll find population densities and trends, success rates, odds, land access, and point thresholds. Leverage that information to create better hunting opportunities for yourself. If you use what you learn you can consistently fill the freezer and the wall. As always, our members can reach out to their Professional Hunt Advisor who will assist every step of the way.

Mike Bales

Mike Bales

Professional Hunt Advisor and Senior Research Specialist