Doe tags 1

Josette Johnson processes doe tag applications at the Lancaster County Treasurer's Office in this file photo from 2018.

State Rep. Gerald Mullery last month introduced legislation that would drastically change the way Pennsylvania hunters apply for antlerless deer licenses.

The Luzerne County lawmaker’s House Bill 207 would remove language in the current state law that says county treasurers are the only ones authorized to distribute those licenses.

Under HB 207, only the Pennsylvania Game Commission or its licensing agents would be allowed to sell doe tags through the Pennsylvania Automated Licensing System (PALS).

Essentially, the bill would pave the way for buying doe tags online or over the counter, rather than through the old pink-envelope, mail-in application system.

“This will make the process of obtaining licenses much more convenient for all Pennsylvanians,” Mullery wrote in a memorandum announcing his intention to introduce the bill.

But will it?

Will it make it “much more convenient for all Pennsylvanians?”

Some hunters think it won’t, if the most recent proposal for a replacement system offered by the Game Commission is put into effect.

Some hunters fear they could be put at a disadvantage when it comes to securing doe tags, especially in those units where competition for tags is high.

Let’s be clear that there is nothing set in stone for how a new doe-tag distribution system in Pennsylvania would work, since state law currently says county treasurers are in charge. That law has to change before anything new can happen.

For this article, the potential system being discussed is one the Game Commission offered when agency officials were asked how they might handle doe tag sales if authority were transferred to the agency from county treasurers.

How the system works now

Each Spring, the Game Commission sets individual antlerless license allocations for each of the state’s 23 Wildlife Management Units.

An antlerless license allows a hunter to take one antlerless deer within the WMU for which the license is issued.

Last year, the agency allocated 932,000 total licenses.

For state residents, most licenses are acquired through three rounds of sales. Just prior to the start of a round, a hunter mails a license application to any county treasurer in the state.

The 67 treasurers’ offices process those applications and then mail out the licenses.

Hunters have complained for years about this process because there can be problems caused by the mail service, by incomplete or illegible applications and because some treasurer’s offices don’t process applications as quickly as others – all of which can affect whether or not hunters get the tags they want.

According to Game Commission data, WMU 2H sold out its allocation of tags the fastest last year. Its 7,000 tags were sold out on July 21, which was before the second round of sales began.

Once the second round of sales began on Aug. 3, WMU 2G sold out that day; WMUs 2F, 3A and 4C sold out Aug. 5; WMU 1B sold out Aug. 6, WMUs 3B, 4D and 4E sold out Aug. 10.

WMUs 2D and 4B then sold out on Aug. 17, which was the first day of the third round of sales.

WMU 4A never sold all of its tags, and the remaining 11 sold out anywhere from nine days to four months after the start of the third round started.

In the 11 units that sold out their allocations before the third round - or just as the third round started - it’s likely there were hunters who wanted tags there, but didn’t get them.

How a new system might work

That’s key because Game Commission staff has said that if the law is changed to open up doe tag sales to all licensing agents and to anyone who can access PALS online, they favor a first come, first served format.

So let’s say the first round of sales opens to state residents at 8 a.m. July 13. Those who can get to a license agent – there are nearly 800 – at that time, or who can be on a computer, laptop, smart phone or other device capable of accessing the internet are likely to get the tags they want.

No question that’s a much more convenient way for many hunters to buy doe tags.

But what if you can’t do either of those at the start of a sales round? What if you work a job that doesn’t allow you to leave to go to a licensing agent or to access the internet for personal business during work hours?

Or what if you’re Amish and don’t have easy access to the internet or an easy way to get to a licensing agent?

Several Amish hunters I spoke to said the most convenient way for them to apply for doe tags is through the current system.

“All I have to do is go out to my mailbox,” one hunter said.

When I asked the Game Commission about the possibility of some hunters having an advantage over others through the first come, first served system, agency spokesman Travis Lau noted that all hunters have to buy a hunting license before they can apply for a doe tag.

“So all submitting valid applications, regardless of their individual situation, have made it a point to pick up a license somewhere prior to applying,” he said.

This is true. But hunters are able to do that when it’s convenient for them over the course of about a month before the first round of sales. And everyone has a mailbox within walking distance of home that they can put their doe-tag application in any time of the day or night.

Each round of doe tag sales would have a starting date and time. What if that starting date and time is not convenient for you to get in a line – either physically or a virtual one – to buy a tag?

County treasurers' stance

The County Treasurers Association of Pennsylvania is opposed to Mullery’s bill, but Lancaster County Treasurer Amber Martin supports it.

“I am in favor of any changes that make the process more efficient and customer-centric for our hunters,” she said. “Our by-mail/by-treasurer only process is antiquated.”

Martin’s office processes more doe-tag applications than any other office in the state – 32,311 last year. The Cameron County office processed the fewest last year at 1,691.

And while the county offices earn $1 per doe tag sold, Martin said it’s not worth the burden for her office.

“We have a 10-person office and 32,000 doe tags in a short window of time is a lot of added administrative burden, when you consider all of our other county-wide responsibilities that do not stop just because it’s doe-tag season,” she said.

But even as she favors opening doe tag sales to all license agents – which includes all county treasurers’ offices – and to online sales, Martin said she shares her colleagues’ concerns regarding hunters being disadvantaged by not having computers and potential problems with PALS, among other issues.

Martin said her office has experienced delays in the past while trying to process doe tags. And that’s with just 67 offices accessing PALS, as opposed to potentially tens of thousands of hunters and license agents, if access is opened to everyone.

According to Lau, PALS just last month was upgraded to make it more robust than the previous version. He said it has the ability to control a rush of customers trying to get in at the same time by limiting the flow of business.

“The new system’s waiting room and queuing system for online customers,” would only allow a limited number of customers to make transactions at a time.

But that means everyone else is waiting.

How long might hunters online have to wait for their turn to buy tags?

“At this time, we can’t estimate wait times that could be expected in whatever would end up as the busiest time,” Lau said.

But he pledged the agency wouldn’t launch a new program blind.

“Heavy testing is conducted prior to going live with any new process in the sales system to detect and alleviate problems,” he said.

“So we could troubleshoot a variety of different scenarios. But it would still remain to be seen how customers would react to a new process.”

Oh, and while hunters buying tags at authorized license agents – hunting supply stores, big box stores, etc. - would have their antlerless licenses printed out on the spot, hunters buying online still would have to wait for tags to be mailed to them by the operators of the HuntFishPA licensing platform, which is NIC Inc. out of Kansas.

So for anyone buying tags online, the U.S. Postal Service still would be part of the process.

Share your thoughts

I view the current doe-tag system as sort of a lottery. Hunters mail in their applications to county treasurers and hope they are processed quickly enough that they get the tags they want.

I understand the frustration that can cause when control is handed to someone else.

At the same time, that system seems fair to everyone. No one hunter has an advantage over any other hunter.

You buy your license when it’s convenient before the doe-tag application process begins, and all you need to apply for a tag is a mailbox.

The Game Commission’s proposal emphasizes “first.” If you have the time and technology to be “first,” then you’re probably going to get what you want.

But what if you can’t be “first” because of your job, because of where you live, or because of the way you live?

What do all of you think? Let me know via email: PREILLY@LNPNEWS.COM.

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