Digital hunting tags raise privacy questions

Montana's tribes may regain their licenses to hunt bison but Montana's hunters may have to solve privacy problems before gaining the right to have digital hunting tags.

In the Senate Fish and Wildlife Committee, Sen. Jennifer Pomnichowski, D-Bozeman, learned her bill promoting digital game tags already faced an amendment because of privacy concerns.

Senate Bill 50 would give Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks the authority to create a program allowing hunters to possess digital licenses on their smart phones that they could validate the license once they killed their animal. It would work regardless of cell coverage because the application could note the date and time to be sent once the phone had a signal. Problems could arise if a phone battery died, but hunters could still choose to use paper tags.

License Bureau Chief Hank Worsech said many details still needed to be worked out before digital tags became a reality. If the bill passed, FWP would assemble a working group to hammer out all the potential problems and the program would start slowly, maybe using the turkey hunt as the trial program, Worsech said.

Representatives from both the Montana Wildlife Federation and the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association spoke in favor of the bill.

MOGA spokeswoman Jeanne Johnson said her organization has been required to provide a large amount of paperwork in the past and then FWP didn’t use much of the data provided. Digital tags could provide a lot of data without the extra paperwork, Johnson said.

Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, suggested FWP could use the data to better manage hunts because the agency would have a better idea of when hunt quotas were met.

“This would help with data mining and trends. You could have it be more than just a convenience for hunters,” Vincent said.

But the mention of mining hunting data gave some legislators pause. They worried that the location data might be too specific, allowing the agency and maybe other hunters to track where people were hunting.

“This is my concern about data collection; a lot of people are secretive about where they hunt. Could we put limitations on that part of the bill?” said Sen. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade.

Pomnichowski, concerned that the bill could get bogged down in technical details, said the only important information was the hunting district where a hunter killed an animal, not the latitude and longitude, so that could be stipulated.

FWP Administration Chief Dustin Temple stepped in, explaining that he used to be in charge of the IT section and FWP could collect the data to as fine or coarse a scale as was needed.

“Our concept is to involve as many people as we can in the working group to figure this out,” Temple said.

Pomnichowski didn’t think privacy would be an impediment, because hunters don’t have to use the digital option if they’re worried.

“The bill says, ‘A hunter may electronically validate...’” Pomnichowski said. “The greater recreation community is interested in this. This is the language that allows this to go forward past requiring a tag that you wrap around the antler or the leg.”

Over in the House Fish, Wildlife & Parks committee, Rep. Bridget Smith, D-Wolf Point, was trying to renew a law that allows each of Montana’s tribes to get two bison tags each from the state for ceremonial purposes. The previous law had sunset in 2015 so the tribes asked that it be renewed.

The Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes are the only Montana tribe allowed to hunt bison outside Yellowstone National Park without having to apply to FWP because they have historic treaty rights. But the other seven tribal groups are limited to the two tags.

Some tribes – the CSKT and the Crow - don’t use their tags, while other tribes want more. Heart Butte Rep. George Kipp said FWP could allocate any amount of tags for tribes, not just two. Cutbank Rep. Lea Whitford and Lame Deer Rep. Rae Peppers asked that the quota be increased to five tags per tribe.

FWP Operations Chief Mike Volesky said if the new law allowed FWP to issue tribal tags at the same time as those of state hunters, then the 16 tribal tags wouldn’t subtract from the 40 tags issued to state hunters as they have in the past.

Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock said state hunters could stand behind that.