Bird hunter standing in a field with his hunting dog

11 Best Western States Ranked By Public Hunting Opportunities

If you're a hunter who hasn't already made the trip, you've probably dreamed of going out west. The region exudes adventure, and the idea of hunting game animals in the plains or mountains, all on publicly-accessible land, is unmatched. But unfortunately, opportunities to hunt out west seem to be dwindling. Several states have restructured their big game tag allotment system to give fewer tags to non-resident hunters or make it harder for non-residents to draw a tag in the first place. With hunter numbers growing and pushback from state residents, the number of non-resident opportunities will continue to decrease. For now, there are still plenty of western hunting to be had, but you can't wait around forever if you want to experience them. To help decide where to start, this list ranks the western states by their public hunting opportunities. They were chosen based on factors such as ease of tag acquirement, public land acreage, and animal population densities. Read on for our favorite western opportunities!

11. North Dakota

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North Dakota's big game populations are comparatively low, and public land is somewhat limited at 4.4 million acres statewide, but it represents a sleeper pick in the hunting category. While is may be outshined by its southern neighbor with the similar name, North Dakota still offers a great option for pheasant, not to mention whitetail deer. As another added bonus, whitetail tags are affordable and available over-the-counter. Though not every parcel is available for hunting, public lands in North Dakota come in many forms and are controlled by many agencies, like the Bureau of Land Management, National Wildlife Refuges, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and of course State Wildlife Management Areas. A little research ahead of time will help, but a North Dakota public land hunt could produce one of the best experiences of your season.

10. Nevada 

Goshute Canyon Wilderness, BLM Nevada

Goshute Canyon Wilderness, BLM Nevada. Bureau of Land Management, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nevada has some of the highest public land area totals in the country, with around 62 million acres. This is great for residents, but only helps the few lucky non-residents who draw tags in the state. Nevada has modest but healthy populations of elk, antelope, and mule deer, so it is diverse in its game species, but non-residents have struggled to find enough opportunities in this state. It's a give-and-take situation, but overall, the sheer amount of public land gives Nevada a spot on the list.

9. New Mexico

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New Mexico is a state rich in big game, with good-sized populations of elk, antelope, black bear, mule deer, Coues deer, and whitetail deer. The habitat and management practices have produced quality trophy potential across the landscape. What New Mexico doesn't have is a non-resident-friendly lottery draw. While you don't have to build preference points in New Mexico, the state only allows 6% of its tags to go to non-residents. This policy is unfortunate, considering New Mexico harbors 45 million acres of public land. However, one caveat is that if you can obtain landowner permission, you can buy an over-the-counter deer or antelope tag. That earns extra points, and keeps New Mexico firmly in this list.

8. Wyoming

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Wyoming is possibly one of the most beautiful states on this list and boasts 35 million acres of public hunting land. Wyoming has excellent turkey, elk, and mule deer numbers, not to mention the highest overall antelope population in the United States. Antelope tags in the eastern part of the state are easier to draw, and elk and mule deer tags present decent possibilities. As a non-resident, acquiring a tag in Wyoming is no walk in the park, but it is still one of the best states to hunt in the country.

7. Montana

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Montana only offers one actual over-the-counter tag for Spring black bear tag, and their elk, deer, and antelope tags are through draw only. However, with some research, it is possible to find units that offer 100% draw odds, or at least something close to it. Once you obtain a tag, Montana's 40 million acres provide a great hunting opportunity. Ultimately, Montana remains high on many hunters' bucket lists, and easily gets added to this list.

6. Arizona

western states public hunting

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Northeastern or midwestern hunters would have to agree: a mild weather hunt in November sounds pretty nice when you're experiencing sub-freezing temps before Thanksgiving. Heading not just west, but southwest might be the ticket, and Arizona might be the ideal destination. Arizona is a great state for hunters. It is game-rich and provides trophy potential for several species. Plus there's an unbelievable amount of public land totaling around 61 million acres. Arizona offers a few over-the-counter tags for archery mule deer and spring black bear, and several units are a nearly guaranteed draw for Coues whitetail deer (a very coveted species for some hardcore deer hunters). Elk and antelope tags are harder to come by in Arizona, but aren't completely out of reach. If you've never hunted public land in Arizona, take it from me: it must be penciled into your bucket list.

5. South Dakota

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Now that we're getting towards the top entries in this list, it's going to get a little harder to separate the candidates. South Dakota has a modest amount of public land compared to most other states on this list, tallying just 14 million total acres. They are, however, considered high quality areas for varied types of hunting. South Dakota offers some great non-resident hunting opportunities too, with a couple of options for archery deer and antelope available. The tags aren't traditional over-the-counter, but are guaranteed draw and can be applied all year long. In my opinion, South Dakota is just a great state to hunt, and doing so on public land makes it even more special.

4. Utah

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Utah receives high marks for its over-the-counter elk tags and 43 million acres of public land. It does take a couple of years' worth of point accumulation to land a mule deer or antelope tag, but the wait is worth it considering the trophy potential found in this state. Utah offers some fantastic trophy opportunities and some of the prettiest country a hunter could ask to explore. I'd recommend this state to anyone looking for a dream mule deer hunt. A lot of factors come together to make it an excellent choice.

3. Nebraska

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Nebraska might be surprisingly high in some readers' minds, but I feel that it is deserved. Nebraska offers a relatively low public land total with 2.4 million acres available, but the state has tried to make itself very non-resident friendly and has ample hunting opportunities. Nebraska offers over-the-counter tags for mule deer (muzzleloader and archery) and antelope (archery), and has a very liberal muzzleloader mule deer season. The state even offers a July elk tag over-the-counter for those that can obtain landowner permission. Don't disregard the waterfowl hunting in Nebraska, too. It's arguably some of the best in the U.S. Another thing that makes Nebraska a good choice is its proximity to the eastern states. Nebraska is an easy drive for most easterners, and is often a gateway state to more extensive western hunts in the future.

2. Colorado

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Colorado had a fighting chance of finishing first on this list, and many hunters would grant it that spot. It's an incredible state for a western hunting experience, and certain Colorado licenses and tags are attainable practically every year for non-residents. Colorado's 29 million public land acres are home to some of the country's biggest elk and mule deer populations, and over-the-counter elk tags (all methods available) and antelope tags (archery) in specific units are up for grabs. Some units in Colorado are also a near guarantee for mule deer. One thing is for sure, Colorado bolsters opportunities for the hunter that wants to visit every year, and is hands down one of the best places to hunt public land in the country. 

1. Idaho

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Idaho has to be number one on this list, and it's hard to argue why. First, the state offers over-the-counter tags for mule deer, whitetail, and elk. Pronghorn tags are almost a guaranteed draw in some units as well. The state also claims one of the country's largest elk and mule deer populations. Not only is acquiring a tag relatively simple in Idaho, but there is also no shortage of places to go once you get there, considering the 37 million acres of public land in the state. Idaho has to be the top pick for hunters looking for both numerous and quality opportunities. 

Let's be honest: you can have awesome hunts in any of the states mentioned, and they all deserve their props. You can have excited, successful public land hunting experiences in other western states that didn't make the list, too. The goal was to highlight each state's options and let non-residents know where they can shift their focus. If you are craving a western hunting experience, start your planning now with one of these states, and you'll be well on your way to an all-time great hunt.