Six years before Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer ignited a global firestorm when he killed an African lion named Cecil, he posed for a photo beside the carcass of another trophy – one he killed 60 miles from Sacramento.
It was a bull tule elk, and its majestic antlers were a near world record. Like his $50,000 hunt for Cecil, Palmer’s California trophy didn’t come cheap. He paid $45,000. The price was for a pass from California wildlife officials to kill the elk on state property using the services of two hunting outfitters.
Palmer bought that hunt at an auction, one of about a dozen the California Department of Fish and Wildlife sanctions each year to raise funds for big-game conservation programs.
While the notion of pay-to-play trophy hunts rankles animal-rights activists – and even some hunters – Fish and Wildlife spokesman Clark Blanchard said were it not for nearly three decades of such auctions, there would be a whole lot fewer elk and other big-game species in California.
“The fundraiser tags were in some cases the sole funds for years that ran these elk, antelope and (bighorn) sheep programs,” Blanchard said.
They’ve been a boon for California’s tule elk, in particular. In 1970, before the auction tag system, the statewide tule elk population was down to 500 in three herds. Because of conservation efforts largely paid for by auction tags and other hunter-funded programs, there are now 22 herds totaling close to 4,200 animals, wildlife officials said.
Hunting boosters argue that people paying to kill a relatively small number of elk have helped the overall species.
It’s much the same rationale that hunters and some conservation groups have used following controversy over Cecil the lion’s death. They argue that African trophy hunters pay the bulk of habitat preservation, restoration and anti-poaching efforts on that continent.
In California, Fish and Wildlife relies heavily on hunting dollars for similar programs. That doesn’t sit well with animal-rights activists.
“As if the only way to generate revenue to protect any of these species is to sell dead ones,” said Jennifer Fearing, who advocates in California for the Humane Society of the United States.
In California, hunting and sports-fishing licenses and fees generated about $83 million in revenue for the Fish and Wildlife in 2014. Typically, Blanchard said, hunting and fishing revenue and other related fees account for about a quarter of the department’s total budget.
Big-game hunters’ fees alone contribute about $10.8 million. The revenue is put into a dedicated state account that funds big-game habitat and research projects and efforts to improve hunting opportunities.
Last year, the auctions raised $340,000 for the Big Game Management Account.
Blanchard said the auction program originated in the late 1980s as a means to fund elk, bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope programs, because there “just wasn’t enough money” generated through traditional hunter fees.
In the auction-tag program, the department usually partners with nonprofit conservation organizations, led by hunters, to sell to the highest bidder 10 to 15 highly coveted hunts each year, typically for elk, deer, bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope.
The state gets to keep 95 percent of the revenue raised. The nonprofits that host the auctions get 5 percent – and a secondary boost from fundraising banquets that draw wealthy attendees who can donate money for habitat restoration and other causes.
“Those folks are contributing greatly for the species they’re hunting,” said Randy Morrison, California’s regional director of the Mule Deer Foundation, which auctions some fundraiser tags every year. “For the cost of one animal, so to speak, they’re doing a ton for the species.”
Using auction tags to gin up funds for big-game species is a common practice in many states, where the prize is sometimes referred to as a “governor’s tag.” Some hunts for particularly rare trophy animals have been known to auction for as much as $400,000.
But these elite hunts can be controversial even among hunters. Some object to wealthy hunters essentially being able to pay to cut in line. It’s not uncommon for hunters without the means to pay to wait more than a decade for an opportunity to land a premier hunt through state lottery systems.
“There’s a fair amount of sour grapes that comes with this,” said Keith Balfourd, a spokesman for the Montana-based Boone and Crockett Club, the nation’s oldest trophy-hunting and conservation organization. Even so, he said, most hunters support the auction tag, because they understand what the money means for conservation.
“I will tell you that the majority of sportsmen engaged in conservation get the bigger picture,” he said.
Most hunting in California involves run-of-the-mill deer, fowl and wild pigs, with the goal of putting meat in the freezer. Trophy animals – generally big-game species with massive horns or antlers – make up a prized subset of those kills. In general in California, hunting seasons for deer, antelope, bighorn sheep and elk tend to be short, and success rates vary widely by region.
Though it may come as a surprise to foothills residents who regularly shoo deer from their gardens, deer hunting – trophy or otherwise – is not an easy pursuit in California. Deer hunts are legal only in certain zones at certain times of year, and many of these areas are difficult to access. In 2013, the state issued 178,940 deer tags. Just 8.2 percent were recorded as a kill.
It’s even more difficult to hunt big-game species such as elk, antelope or bighorn sheep. Because their populations are far smaller, Fish and Wildlife allows only a few to be killed. In 2014, the state received 33,064 applications for elk hunts, and issued just 316 tags.
Hunting-tag quotas are set by state biologists who monitor big-game populations by region and determine how many can be hunted with nominal impact on the herd. In areas where a species is plentiful – or where hunter success rates are traditionally low – more tags are given out. In prime hunting grounds where success rates are high and populations relatively low, fewer tags are issued.
Hunters must pay a small fee to enter a summer lottery for premier hunting zones. Some lotteries are highly competitive. It’s not uncommon for hunters to apply annually for years for a premium hunt and never get drawn.
For instance, 2,882 hunters from across the state applied last year for four bull tule elk tags issued for the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area. That’s where Palmer – after winning an auction tag with his $45,000 bid – killed his elk in 2009.
While the revenue generated through big-money auctions might seem like an easy way to generate additional cash for Fish and Wildlife, Blanchard, the agency spokesman, said there’s “no intention of going any further with this.”
Instead, heeding concerns about hunter equity, the department in 2011 began offering a handful of what are called “fundraising random drawing tags.”
Similar to auction tags, these are for premier hunts, but they’re not geared toward the wealthy. Anyone can try to win one in a randomized state-run lottery. Hunters pay a $5.97 fee, and can enter as many times as they want before the summer deadline. Last year, the hunters’ gambles generated more than $200,000 for Fish and Wildlife, with just three prizes awarded for premier hunts of deer, elk and antelope.