Arizona Voted to Ban Auction Tags. What Does that Mean for Conservation?

An auctioneer fields bids at the Western Hunt Expo.
A recent auction for Arizona's statewide mule deer tag generated more than $700,000 for the state's fish and game agency.

On Friday, March 15, the Arizona Fish and Game Commission voted to do away with state's coveted big game auction tags. Since they were created in the 1980s, these tags have generated huge sums for species-specific conservation projects. Just last year, for example, the Arizona statewide mule deer tag brought $725,000 at auction in Salt Lake City, Utah. Four of Arizona's five commissioners voted to eliminate the high-dollar tags because they believe the auction model gives wealthy hunters unequal access to the state's legendary big game herds. Now hunters in Arizona and elsewhere are wondering how millions of dollars in lost conservation revenue will be replaced.

A vintage cover of Field & Stream magazine with a spaniel holding a pheasant.
A vintage cover of Field & Stream magazine with a spaniel holding a pheasant.

"These tags brought in a ton of money, and in Arizona, 100 percent of that money goes back to big game species on the ground. It was a very transparent and successful program," Michael Cravens, the Advocacy and Conservation Director of the Arizona Wildlife Federation and the Vice Chairmen of the Arizona Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, tells Field & Stream. Cravens said the Arizona Wildlife Federation was one of several conservation groups that wanted to keep the current auction system in place.

"The problem some of our commissioners had with it is that they believed it went against the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, which states that we need to provide opportunity to all," he says. "But statistics show that all of that money was being put back on the ground. It equated to more habitat, better habitat, and more animals on the landscape, which in turn created more opportunity for the public."

According to Cravens, the vote will sunset Arizona's auction tag system by the 2026 big game season. "It'll be interesting to see what those tags go for at auction next year because it'll be the last opportunity to bid on them," he said.

Historically, the Arizona Game & Fish Department (AZGFD) has allowed up to three auction tags for each of its big game species. Of the several western states that allow for the sale of big game tags at auction, Arizona's trophy tags draw some of the largest sums at hunting events like the Sheep Show and the Western Hunting and Conservation Expo. In 2023—the same year an Arizona muley tag went for more than $700,000 at the Western Hunt Expo—someone shelled out $430,000 for a desert bighorn tag at a Wild Sheep Foundation event in Reno, Nevada.

Though big game auction tags seem to raise more money and garner more media attention each year, there's a growing movement in some states to prioritize open raffles over banquet hall auctions that cater to well-heeled hunters. In Montana, for example, the statewide mule deer tag is now being raffled off by Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA). Sources in the Montana chapter of BHA tell F&S that the raffle will raise at least as much money as an auction for the same tag generated at the Western Hunt Expo in January 2023.

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In Arizona, it's not clear what will replace the state's proven auction model, but some hunters suspect AZGFD will implement similar open raffles to make up for lost revenue. In the meantime, local conservation groups are left in a state of limbo. "There is no clear and concise plan for replacement, and that's why a lot of folks are upset," Cravens said. "We do have a raffle system but cost-study analysis has shown that when it comes to the more iconic or more sought-after species—sheep, elk, pronghorn—the raffle tags do not equate to nearly the amount of money that the auction tags do."