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Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks sent the equivalent of two permits to thousands of deer and elk hunters, thanks to a glitch 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 started pouring in to 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 of the commenters had chosen to get an “E-tag” – a permit that a hunter downloads to their smartphone. FWP requires that hunters choose one or the other, and if you choose an E-tag, you don’t get a paper permit.

Technically, those hunters could now shoot an animal using their paper permit and then take another using their E-tag. Most probably won’t, but wardens wouldn’t be the wiser.

Many hunters made jokes about how inept FWP’s switch to digital has been, because the forum thread had started back on May 2 with complaints that the E-tags often didn’t work on Samsung phones. A few commenters said FWP pushed the app out too quickly while others said they were happy they chose to get paper permits.

On July 12, one of the hunters, using the nickname “Nameless Range,” posted that he’d notified FWP about the problem.

“I did recommend a letter or a press release letting folks now that they do not in fact have two B permits. Ideally, the app would have primacy, wardens will have access to a list of those that have the app, and anyone caught with a paper tag on a critter will be in the wrong,” the hunter wrote.

As of Thursday, nine days later, FWP hadn’t notified anyone.

The Missoula Current called FWP spokesman Greg Lemon at 12:06 p.m. on Thursday asking about the problem. Lemon said he’d check on the issue. At 12:53, Lemon sent an email to the Missoula Current saying he was still tracking down an answer.

“Please don’t publish anything until we have a chance to respond to your question,” Lemon wrote.

At 2:59 p.m., Lemon again emailed the Current saying hunters who drew special deer and elk permits “may have also received a paper tag in the mail. We’ve emailed those who received both and instructed them to destroy the paper tag if the E-tag has shown up on their MyFWP Mobile App.”

At the same moment, hunters reported receiving an email informing them that they should destroy their paper tags if they have an E-tag, although a few said they’ve received nothing.

Lemon said 5,800 hunters received both an E-tag and a paper copy. For hunters who chose to get an E-tag, the E-tag is the only one that is valid and hunters cannot kill another animal using the extra paper permit, Lemon wrote.

“We have identified the error that caused this, and it’s been fixed. We are in a transition year between our new licensing system and our old system that’s 20 years old. That transition is a slow process, in part because we have to operate both the new system and the old system in this transition year,” Lemon wrote.

This isn’t the only mistake FWP has made this year regarding licenses.

In April, FWP Director Hank Worsech announced that he had decided to issue 10% more elk permits in 10 hunting districts in eastern Montana to make up for a computer glitch. FWP had required that only hunters who chose those districts as their first and only choice could draw a permit.

FWP told hunters the computer would keep them from entering a second or third choice. But some were able to. Some hunters, including Lewistown hunter Doug Krings, notified FWP of the glitch but were ignored. Then, those who did enter more than one choice were kicked out of the drawing before it took place.

To make up for that, Worsech said those hunters got a second chance to draw a permit in the 10 districts even though that exceeded the mandated number of permits.

Resident hunters pointed out that those districts are the same ones where landowners and outfitters were complaining that FWP wasn’t allowing enough hunting. The computer didn’t have a problem in any other districts.

The landowners and outfitters in eight of those same districts sell bull hunts on their land to rich nonresident hunters so they don’t want permits that are limited by a drawing. The more general licenses they could get, the more hunts they could sell.

During last year’s big changes to elk districts and licensing, resident hunters repeatedly protested proposed changes to those eastern Montana districts. At one point, Worsech tried to limit hunters with permits to public land while hunters with general tags could hunt on private land. That could have allowed landowners to sell bull hunts on their land while resident hunters with permits were stuck on small chunks of public land. Public outcry forced Worsech to withdraw that proposal.

Next, FWP made a mistake on the website by publishing the wrong start date for turkey season after FWP commissioners had pushed the date back a week. Hunters who reported people who were shooting turkeys early were told that FWP wouldn’t be citing anyone because of the mistake.

Hunters received archery-only permits with the wrong dates.

Then, on June 1, FWP revealed that it had accidentally mailed 1,200 deer and elk licenses to nonresidents who’d been unsuccessful in their applications. FWP requested that the nonresident hunters voluntarily return the licenses. But again, wardens won’t be the wiser.

FWP has made a big deal about its redesigned website that rolled out shortly after the 2020 election. It’s also been touting its Montana MyFWP App, which rolled out at the end of February. It went live on March 1 because that was the start of the 2022 license year. But all the problems FWP has had since indicate that neither system is capable of replacing the old system, at least not yet.

The new app is part of a $10 million upgrade to FWP’s licensing system authorized by the Legislature in 2019. In March, the Helena Independent Record reported that FWP said an $18 million contract to overhaul the agency’s business systems had been awarded to Deloitte through a competitive bidding process. The company reportedly built much of the programming from scratch.

Some hunters question why the systems Deloitte designed for other states haven’t had the problems FWP has had with its license drawings. Looking for an explanation, they note that attorney Mark Taylor of the Helena-based Taylor-Luther Group represents Deloitte Consulting. But he’s also the lobbyist for the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association and represents the Wilks Brothers, who own a ranch in one of the eight contested elk hunting districts.

Besides the Wilks Brothers, Taylor worked with Worsech and Deputy Director Dustin Temple, a former FWP technology chief, to secure special landowner permits for a half-dozen other residents and non-residents who own large Montana ranches, according to Outdoor Life.

In a July 10 op-ed, Krings expressed disappointment in FWP’s systems and leadership.

“Mistakes happen. But one error after the next, like what we have seen this year, and the inability of FWP to remedy the situation and uphold legal hunting regulations — that’s inexcusable,” Krings wrote.

 Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com

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