Audit of FWP’s bonus point system finds it working fairly, but better public communication needed

By: - May 15, 2023 5:45 pm

An elk herd on the 73 Ranch, which was acquired by American Prairie in December (Courtesy American Prairie)

An audit of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ bonus points system found the points were being awarded and determined fairly and as required by law, but that there was also some confusion among hunters and even department employees about the system, and some data cleanup issues, that FWP has agreed to address.

The bonus points can be purchased to help both residents and nonresidents increase their chances of drawing some of the hunting permits that are more difficult to get either because of high demand or low permit numbers.

The audit, which was released Monday, will be presented to the Legislative Audit Committee at its June 8 meeting. It found that the department accurately calculates and awards bonus points, but also that there was room for improvement.

“We identified improvements in data quality protection, use of historical data, and communications needed to ensure ongoing success,” Auditor Sarah Carlson wrote in the report. “The improvements will protect the integrity of bonus point processes and offer clear descriptions of bonus points to the public and within the department.”

Auditors with the Legislative Audit Division for six months analyzed 104 drawings that used bonus points from 2014 to 2021 and simulated millions of draws to be sure the system was working properly.

The audit found those processes were “behaving as law and rule require” but that improvements could be made in how FWP communicates the process with the public and inside the department; that there were possibilities for errors through the Automated Licensing System and some of the manual data entry the department performs; and that there needed to be a better system in place to be sure people who get their hunting privileges revoked also have their bonus points taken away in accordance with the law.

The audit found there were 314,000 applications for permits using bonus points in 2022 that came from 275,000 to 300,000 different applicants – around 80% of them Montana residents.

The largest number of bonus points were used in sheep, moose, and elk drawings last year. The audit found there were 936,658 bonus points used worth more than $4.6 million.

Hunters and anglers can buy a bonus point when they apply for a permit or license, or between July 1 and Sept. 30. But they can only buy one bonus point per license each year.

People who buy the bonus point with their permit application would be able to use that point and any they have previously accumulated to try to increase their chances of drawing a permit. The formula FWP uses in determining how many chances a person using their bonus points has to draw the permit is 1, plus their bonus points squared. So, if a person has three bonus points, they would have 10 chances of drawing the permit.

A person who successfully draws a permit for their first choice using bonus points has those points reset to zero. But if they only draw their second or third choice, the points are not reset and can roll over.

A change made to the process in 2021, as reported by the Billings Gazette, made newly purchased bonus points available to use immediately.

The audit said that despite some confusion about how the system works, it is working in tune with the law and regulations.

“FWP’s bonus point process is accurate, consistent, and in accordance with law and rule,” the audit found. “Hunters, anglers, and policymakers can depend on the accurate selection of permit draw winners.”

But the audit did find areas ripe for improvement, including the communications process – currently an email chain – to ensure people who have their privileges revoked lose the bonus points; shoring up data entry and coding language; and better using the automated licensing system to cut down on potential user errors.

The Legislative Audit Division recommended several changes be made to those processes – all of which FWP Acting Director Dustin Temple agreed with in a letter sent back to the division.

He told the auditors the licensing and technology divisions would develop processes to better log point requests, improve the automated system and point structure, and make more uniform coding and classification decisions as the department moves to a new system.

The audit had also found that information available to the public about the bonus point system was unclear or underdeveloped, including some hard-to-understand language, wonky data spreadsheets, and differing language between FWP divisions about the program.

Temple told the Audit Division the department would create a statewide outreach strategy to better communicate with the public both about the program and the benefits of using it. Further, there would be better inter-staff communication moving forward.

“The Licensing Bureau and Communication and Education Division staff will coordinate to create statewide educational materials to better inform FWP staff regarding bonus points,” Temple wrote. “This will allow public-facing staff to provide improved customers services as it relates to bonus points.”

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Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.

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