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Colorado Preference Points : Lesson 1

Updated on December 7, 2015
Colorado Black Bear
Colorado Black Bear

Hunting big game in the Gunnison National Forest of Colorado each year is the most anticipated event of my yearly outdoor adventures. Wilderness elk hunting has completely destroyed any zest I had for bagging whitetail deer, feral hogs or other East Texas game animals. I begin planning for the next Colorado trip before I make it home from the previous trip. In planning, one of the most important considerations is "How many preference points do I have?". The preference point system is simple, but there is a steep learning curve before most begin to understand.

What's a Preference Point?

Before a hunter can understand the seemingly complicated preference point system, it is necessary to have a basic understanding how the Colorado Parks & Wildlife determines the number of license, also called tags, that will be issued. CPW have several tools at their disposal to help manage wildlife populations and hunting pressure. One such tool is the Game Management Unit or GMU. The entire state is divided into a large number of GMU's, similar to states being divided into counties. These GMU's are bordered by rivers, county lines, highways, and other borders. A downloadable map of Colorado's GMU's can be viewed HERE. CPW wildlife managers and officials have set population objectives for each GMU. In addition to the GMU's, Colorado's fall hunting is broken into several seasons based on method of take, big game species and gender of the animal to be hunted. Certain seasons may open earlier or later and may run concurrent or separate from others. The seasons vary from species to species and GMU to GMU. Using population counts, hunter surveys and other data, the DOW then determines the number of tags that will be issued for each species in each season in each GMU. These tags are then made available to hunters by various means.

Some tags for certain seasons are simply sold "over the counter" by licensing agents, such as Wal-Mart and sporting goods stores. These tags are referred to as unlimited licenses. Other tags, called "limited licenses" are made available through an annual drawing. Individuals apply, either online or through mail, for these tags. This drawing is when preference points, called points by many hunters, become important. If a hunter applies for a limited license and is does NOT draw a tag, the hunter is awarded one preference point for that big game species. For example: If a hunter applies for a bull elk tag valid during the muzzleloader season in GMU 82 and does not draw the tag, the hunter will receive 1 elk point. The next year, the hunter may then apply for the second rifle season in GMU 61. If the hunter does not draw the tag, he will be awarded another elk point. He will know have a total of 2 elk points. There is no limit to the number of points a hunter can accrue. Important notes: 1) Preference points are SPECIES specific - they are NOT unit or season specific! This means elk points can be used for drawing an elk tag in any unit for any season; 2) Hunters can accumulate points for all big game species. One particular hunter may have 5 elk points, 3 bear points, 2 deer points, etc and another hunter may have 15 elk points. 3) Only one point per species per year can be earned. If a hunter unsuccessfully applies for deer, elk and bear tags, he will earn 1 point for each species.

Gunnison National Forest - Colorado
Gunnison National Forest - Colorado

What do I do with a point?

Now that I have a preference point, what good is it? The hunter with the most preference points for that species will receive the first tag for the unit and season applied; the applicant with the second most points will get the second tag and so on and so on, until all the available tags are gone. The remaining unsuccessful applicants will receive a point. Consider the following scenario: CPW makes 100 tags available for the muzzleloading elk season in Unit 68. There are a total of 200 hunters who apply for the tags. Of these 200 hunters, 5 have 5 points, 20 have 4 points, 30 have 3 points, 40 have 2 points, 50 have 1 point and the remaining 55 applicants have 0 points. The 5 applicants with 5 points would each receive a tag, those with 4, 3 and 2 points would also receive tags. At that point, 95 tags have been issued, leaving 5 tags available. There are 50 applicants with 1 point, a simple random drawing would select 5 of the 50 to receive a tag. The remaining 45 applicants with 1 point who did not draw a tag and the 55 applicants who had 0 points would each receive one elk preference point. Note: Once an applicant successfully draws a tag, all preference points for that species are lost and the process begins again.

That's so easy!! Yeah, I know. Read it again, write it out on paper! The method is simple, it's one of those things that once studied enough finally smacks you in the head! It is a very simple and fair method of distributing tags. A lot of hunters look at the system and think "Well, it will take years to get enough points to hunt!". For certain GMU's and seasons, that's true, it may take 20+ years to acquire the points necessary! However, there are many tags available that require no points to draw a tag. Also, remember some tags can be purchased over the counter. With the availability of unlimited tags and strategic use of preference points a hunter can chase big game in Colorado every year and still accumulate the points necessary to obtain a tag for the hunt of a lifetime!


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      4 years ago

      You can apply for the license, or the DOW has a program where you can simply purchase a preference point this year, to be used next. Check our the CDOW website.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      If I can't hunt this year, but I wanted to start accumulating points, can I still buy a limited license for 2013?


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