Applying for Big Game Licenses in New Mexico

Applying for Big Game Licenses in New Mexico

Author Ryan McSparran

New Mexico is a state full of opportunities for western big game hunting enthusiasts. The state is widely known for its high quality elk hunting. But there are also opportunities to hunt deer, pronghorn and even free-ranging exotic species like Oryx, Barbary sheep and ibex.

The deadline to apply for big game licenses in New Mexico this year is March 16, 2022.

One of the most intriguing things about New Mexico is that there is no preference point or bonus point system. Big game licenses are issued in a random lottery. The downside of this system is that you won’t be rewarded for year-after-year loyalty. However, the upside is that all applicants are on a level playing field, no matter how recently you began applying.

However you feel about a lottery draw system, New Mexico is worth considering as you plan your annual big game applications. All licenses are limited and for the most part, New Mexico offers high-quality hunting opportunities. Some units are managed more for herd numbers and hunter opportunity. While other units are managed more for trophy quality. So no matter what you’re looking for – a big trophy or meat in the freezer – there are opportunities for everyone. 

As you consider applying for a big game license in New Mexico this year, here are a few things to keep in mind…


License Allocation

New Mexico divides applicants into three categories for license allocation purposes: residents, nonresidents and guided hunters. In the draw process, 84% of the licenses are allocated to residents, 6% go to nonresidents and 10% go to hunters who have contracted with a licensed outfitter.

If you are considering a guided hunt anyway, be sure to select an outfitter first and then apply with that outfitter in the draw. Doing so can increase your draw odds tremendously. As with any service and especially a guided hunt, choose a highly reputable, high-quality outfit.

License Distribution

One of the most unique things about the big game draw in New Mexico, is that there is no preference point or bonus point system. Big game licenses are issued in a random lottery. If this is your first year applying, you have the same shot as any other nonresident hunter. Compared other states around the west where point systems and point creep make top-tier hunts out of reach for many hunters, New Mexico is a welcome change of pace. Odds may be low to draw a coveted tag – but there’s always a chance. 

All Three Choices Matter

In New Mexico, applicants can list three choices on their application. Each application is issued a random number. When your number comes up, the system looks at your first choice. If no licenses are remaining, it then looks at your second choice. And if no licenses are remaining for that hunt, it looks at your third choice. 

This is very different from a state like Colorado, for example. Here in Colorado, the system looks at everyone’s first choice and distributes licenses. Because of this, most licenses are distributed in the first round. By the time we get to the second choice round, most quality licenses are gone.

But because New Mexico considers all three of your choices before moving on to the next applicant, this changes the way you can structure your application. For your first choice you can shoot for the moon and apply for a top-tier unit with low odds. Assuming you don’t draw that one, you can put units with progressively better odds as your second and finally third choice.

Deciding Where to Apply

How do you find your draw odds for the various species, units and hunts throughout New Mexico? There’s no better tool than from our friends at GoHunt. Join their Insider service and you’ll be able to filter through units based on draw odds, trophy potential and more.

If you plan to apply in New Mexico this year, be aware that the application deadline is March 16, 2022.

Payments and Refunds

When you apply in New Mexico, you’ll be required to front the full cost of the license plus a small application fee. You will also be required to purchase a base hunting license, which is currently $65 for nonresidents. When applying for multiple species, you are only required to purchase one base license (not one per species). The application fee and the game license are nonrefundable.

If you draw one of your three choices, congratulations! If you are unsuccessful in the draw, you will receive a refund for the full cost of the license, minus the application fee and the base license. Any refunds will automatically be applied to your credit card following the draw.


New Mexico is home to a variety of big game species and each one is worth considering in your application strategy this year. Again, you can’t beat GoHunt’s Insider tools for detailed unit descriptions and more. But here’s a quick overview of the opportunities available.


New Mexico is known for its top shelf elk hunting. Some of the most prized elk tags in the world are in the Gila National Forest and surrounding areas of New Mexico. But that’s not all New Mexico has to offer. 

In addition to famous areas that are known for trophy-sized elk, New Mexico manages some units for hunter opportunity. In these areas, trophy potential may not be great – but high densities of elk provide chances to fill the freezer. 

Bow, muzzleloader and rifle hunts are all options. One unique thing to note is the fact that New Mexico splits the month of September into two separate archery seasons. Unlike many other western states where an archery tag is valid for the bulk of September, New Mexico applicants must choose if they want to apply for the first half or second half of the month.

Because the elk rut usually heats up during the second half of September, this often creates higher competition for those later archery tags.


New Mexico isn’t known for it’s deer hunting but there may be some hunts to consider. From alpine hunts in northern New Mexico, to desert hunts for mule deer and coues deer, the state has a wide range of possibilities. Many units offer early archery seasons in September, late archery seasons in January, plus rifle and muzzleloader hunts through the middle part of the season. New Mexico isn’t known for producing the number of trophy class bucks as a state like Colorado. But if you love hunting mule deer as much as we do, it might be worth doing some research and applying this year.


New Mexico doesn’t have high densities of antelope compared to a state like Wyoming. But it does produce some outstanding trophy bucks. These low numbers combined with high trophy quality mean that the odds of drawing a tag can be steep. Even though draw odds are low, pronghorn enthusiasts should still consider New Mexico. And if you’re willing to hunt with a bow instead of a rifle, it will usually improve your draw odds. 


In addition to its native species, New Mexico offers the chance to hunt non-native but totally free-range animals like oryx, Barbary sheep and ibex. While not native to New Mexico, these animals have been running around on the desert landscapes for the better part of a century. These provide a fun and totally unique opportunity.

Hunts are available almost year-round for these species, making them a cool “off season” opportunity when most other big game seasons are closed. Again, use the tools from our friends at GoHunt to find specific draw odds and unit descriptions. One downside of these hunts is the license cost – licenses are more than double the cost of a nonresident elk license. However as we mentioned above, if you are unsuccessful in the draw you will receive a refund, minus a small application fee.

Gear for the Adventure

As you plan your big game applications and fall hunting adventures, check out all the great gear we offer here at Caribou Gear. The equipment we choose to carry in our store is the gear that we personally use in the field. From boots to stove systems and everything in between, we’ve used it, tested it and it’s what we recommend.

If you have questions about gear for the upcoming season, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We’d love to help you prepare for your next great adventure!

By Ryan McSparran | Photos: Hunting with LOH Outfitters in New Mexico

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