Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has sent the equivalent of two permits to thousands of deer and elk hunters thanks to a bug in its new computer system. But it’s not the first problem the agency has had with issuing licenses this year.
On July 10, comments piled up on a popular online hunting forum announcing that some hunters had received paper copies of their special deer and elk permits in the mail. The problem is that all the commenters had opted for an “e-tag” – a permit that a hunter downloads onto their smartphone. FWP requires hunters to opt for one or the other, and if you opt for an e-tag, you will not receive a paper permit.
Technically, these hunters could now shoot one animal with their paper permit and then take another with their e-tag. Most likely not, but guards wouldn’t be any smarter.
Many hunters joked about how clumsy the switch from FWP to digital was because the forum thread started on May 2nd with complaints that the e-tags often didn’t work on Samsung phones. Some commenters said FWP got the app out too quickly, while others said they were glad they went with paper permits.
On July 12, one of the hunters, nicknamed “Nameless Range,” posted that he informed FWP of the problem.
“I recommended a letter or press release letting people know they actually don’t have two B permits. Ideally, the app would have priority, wardens would have access to a list of those who have the app, and anyone caught with a paper tag on an animal is wrong,” the hunter wrote.
As of Thursday, nine days later, FWP had not notified anyone.
The Missoula Current called FWP spokesman Greg Lemon at 12:06 p.m. Thursday and asked about the issue. Lemon said he would investigate the issue. At 12:53 p.m., Lemon emailed Missoula Current saying he was still looking for an answer.
“Please do not post anything until we have a chance to respond to your question,” Lemon wrote.
At 2:59 p.m., Lemon emailed Current again, saying hunters who obtained special permits for deer and elk “may also have received a paper label in the mail. We have emailed those who have received both and instructed them to destroy the paper label when the e-label appears on their MyFWP mobile app.”
At the same moment, hunters reported receiving an email informing them to destroy their paper tags if they have an e-tag, although some said they had received nothing.
According to Lemon, 5,800 hunters received both an e-tag and a paper copy. For hunters who have opted for an e-tag, the e-tag is the only valid one, and hunters cannot kill another animal with the additional paper permit, Lemon wrote.
“We identified the bug that caused this and it has been fixed. We are in a transition year between our new licensing system and our old system which is 20 years old. This transition is a slow process, in part because we have to operate both the new system and the old system during this transition year,” wrote Lemon.
This isn’t the only mistake FWP has made regarding licenses this year.
In April, FWP Director Hank Worsech announced that he had decided to issue 10% more moose permits in 10 hunting districts in eastern Montana to correct a computer error. FWP had requested that only hunters choosing these counties as their first and only choice could be granted a permit.
FWP told the hunters the computer would stop them from entering a second or third choice. But some could. Some hunters, including Lewistown hunter Doug Krings, notified FWP of the mishap but were ignored. Then those who made more than one selection were kicked out of the draw before it took place.
To compensate, Worsech said those hunters were given a second chance to get a permit in the 10 districts, even though that exceeded the required number of permits.
Local hunters pointed out that these districts were the same areas where landowners and outfitters complained that FWP was not allowing enough hunting. In all other districts the computer had no problems.
The landowners and outfitters in eight of these districts are selling bull hunts on their land to wealthy non-resident hunters, so they don’t want raffle-limited permits. The more general licenses they could get, the more hunts they could sell.
During last year’s major changes in moose districts and licensing, local hunters repeatedly protested the proposed changes in these eastern Montana districts. At one point, Worsech attempted to restrict hunters with permits to public lands, while allowing hunters with general tags to hunt on private lands. That could have allowed landowners to sell bull hunts on their land while resident hunters are stuck with permits on small pieces of public land. Public outcry forced Worsech to withdraw this proposal.
Next, FWP made a mistake on the website by posting the wrong start date for the turkey season after FWP commissioners pushed the date back a week. Hunters who reported people taking early turkeys were told that FWP would not quote anyone for the error.
Hunters were only given archery permits with incorrect dates.
Then, on June 1, FWP revealed that it had accidentally mailed 1,200 deer and elk licenses to foreigners who were unsuccessful in their applications. FWP urged the non-resident hunters to voluntarily return the licenses. But here, too, the overseers will be none the wiser.
FWP made a big deal about their redesigned website, launched just after the 2020 election. It has also touted its Montana MyFWP app, which launched in late February. It went live on March 1st, as that was the start of the 2022 licensing year. But all the issues FWP has had since then suggest that either system is unable to replace the old system, at least not yet.
The new app is part of a $10 million upgrade to FWP’s licensing system approved by lawmakers in 2019. In March, Helena Independent Record reported that FWP announced that Deloitte had been awarded an $18 million contract to overhaul the agency’s business systems as part of a competitive bidding process. The company reportedly created much of the programming from scratch.
Some hunters wonder why the systems Deloitte has developed for other states haven’t had the problems that FWP has had with its license draws. Looking for an explanation, they discover that attorney Mark Taylor of the Helena-based Taylor Luther group is representing Deloitte Consulting. But he’s also a lobbyist for the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, representing the Wilks Brothers, who own a ranch in one of eight embattled moose counties.
In addition to the Wilks Brothers, Taylor worked with Worsech and associate director Dustin Temple, a former FWP chief of technology, to obtain special landowner permits for half a dozen other residents and non-residents who own large ranches in Montana, according to Outdoor Life.
In a July 10 comment, Krings expressed disappointment with FWP’s systems and leadership.
“Mistakes happen. But blunder after blunder like we’ve seen this year and FWP’s inability to rectify the situation and comply with hunting statutes – this is inexcusable,” Krings wrote.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com