It will be months before hunters call bull elk out of the timber or track deer in the snowy dawn. But springtime in Montana defines the hunt with another kind of action.
Just ask Hank Worsech, license bureau chief at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
“It looks like a bomb went off in here,” he jokes as we walk through the bowels of FW&P’s Helena headquarters.
He and his staff have just finished divvying up nearly 30,000 elk and deer permits—prerequisites for hunting those animals on many districts across the state—among the more than 80,000 residents and nonresidents who applied.
By mid-summer, the license bureau will have processed around 250,000 requests for special permits and licenses to hunt deer, elk, antelope, moose, mountain sheep and mountain goat. It will give out a much smaller number of permits, using lottery-style drawings to select the winners.
Each year, hunters gamble on a chance to hunt areas like the Elkhorn Mountains, which are known for holding trophy bull elk. This year, 12,000 people applied for a mere 120 elk permits on that district.
“It’s luck of the draw,” Worsech says.
Hunters might envision a Powerball machine or pulling names from a giant hat. But the reality is cubicles and computers, stacks of paper and state employees who look slightly overworked as the drawing season peaks.
“During the two days before the deadline (for elk and deer permit applications), we got 1,300 phone calls,” says Neal Whitney, an analyst in the license bureau. “There were four of us answering the phones,” helping hunters answer last-minute questions and working out snags with their online applications, he says.
Because many hunters mail their applications, the lottery process actually begins weeks before a drawing. As many as 15 temporary workers, assigned to a row of cubicles, open thousands of envelopes and process each application by checking the payment amount and manually entering the information into FW&P’s computerized Automated Licensing Service.
In the room where the laundry bin-sized flats of letters are wheeled in, Lorrie Harris and her crew are processing applications for the moose, mountain sheep and mountain goat permits. She remembers getting as many as 40 bins of mail in the final days before a drawing, but these days, with more people applying online, “it’s about a quarter of that,” she says.
The workers do their best to decipher handwriting, but they cull out applications with incorrect or missing information. One common mistake, says Worsech, is not putting the full five-digit number for the hunting district.
“I get asked a lot why we can’t call them if we find something wrong with their application,” Worsech says. “We can’t do that because of the sheer number of applications.”
With every drawing, Worsech says, a handful of mailed applications arrive too late to process. Incredibly, one showed up five years after it was postmarked.
Applying online and over-the-counter is instantaneous, and has other advantages, Worsech says. The computerized system helps to catch any mistakes up-front.
Once the online, over-the-counter and mailed applications are combined in the ALS system, the drawing is somewhat anticlimactic. Whitney and others run a computer program—known simply as “the drawing program”—that numerically encodes the ALS information and selects the permit winners with a randomized algorithm.
There are actually multiple drawings within each drawing, because hunters select second and third choices when applying for permits. Still, some applicants come out empty-handed.
“When people aren’t successful, they’re upset,” says Worsech. “We start getting calls, people saying ‘I’ve been putting in (for the same permit) for all these years. Am I blacklisted?'”
“The computer doesn’t know anything about anybody,” he says. “It truly is a random drawing.”
The lottery as a whole isn’t exactly random, in that certain applicants have advantages. Landowners—if they own 640 acres used by elk, or 160 acres in the case of deer—can enter a separate drawing that allocates up to 15 percent of the district’s permits.
Because the landowner pool is typically much smaller than the general pool, the landowners have good odds. And if they aren’t successful in the landowner pool, they’re automatically entered into the general drawing.
Hunters who have some basic knowledge of how the drawing works can improve their chances, Worsech says.
One misconception, he explains, is that hunters are always entered into the drawing for their second- and third-choice permits. That’s not the case, because permits on popular districts are often entirely allocated to applicants who selected that district as their first choice—there are no permits left for the second- and third-choice drawings. Hunters are guaranteed a permit if they select second- or third-choice districts that have unlimited permits.
Hunters can also increase their odds by purchasing, for $2, one “bonus point” each year. A bonus point applies only to a hunter’s first choice, and doubles his or her chances.
Bonus points carry into the next year’s lottery if the hunter doesn’t draw the permit. Accrued points increase an applicant’s odds exponentially—two points increase the chances by a factor of four, three points by a factor of nine, and so on.
Even with bonus points, some permits are so competitive that hunters often wait decades before pulling a tag—or never pull one at all.
Pinned to Worsech’s bulletin board is a letter from a 73-year-old Montana hunter who entered the moose drawing 55 years in a row, then finally drew the permit. Amazingly, that same year he drew the moose SuperTag, an even more coveted permit that allows moose hunting on any district. He was ecstatic, Worsech says.
This year, Whitney drew his first-choice permit for cow elk, and his second choice for mule deer buck, on a district with unlimited permits.
As for Worsech, he gambled, applying only for a first choice—an either-sex elk tag on a central Montana district with medium odds.
He was on the road for work, a little distracted, he says. “I forgot to use my bonus point.”
Tell that to people, he says: “The chief of licensing didn’t get his elk permit.”