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DNR exploring electronic licensing

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Once on the leading edge of the technology curve, West Virginia's fish and wildlife agency has now fallen behind.

Division of Natural Resources officials want to remedy that by making sure all future fishing- and hunting-license purchases are made by people using computers or smartphones.

"The idea is to do away with our old-fashioned paper license system," said Curtis Taylor, the DNR's wildlife chief.

"We think electronic license sales are faster, more efficient, more cost-effective, and would serve our sportsmen much better. Most states have gone to electronic licensing already. We're lagging behind."

Agency officials recently took the first step toward putting an electronic system into place when they requested proposals from companies that specialize in electronic licensing.

"Basically, we're trying to find out if the off-the-shelf systems these companies have can be tweaked to suit our needs and, at the same time, benefit our sportsmen," Taylor said.

If the DNR effort succeeds, hunters and anglers would no longer need to suffer through the time-consuming process of filling in circles on paper license applications, a la using a number-2 pencil to fill in the answers on a standardized scholastic achievement test.

"A few clicks of a mouse, or a few taps on a smartphone touch screen, and they'd be able to get any kind of license or stamp they would want - and they'd never have to worry about a license agent being out of trout stamps or doe stamps or anything," Taylor said.

As recently as a decade ago, official agents handled all of the state's hunting- and fishing-license sales. Every single license required purchasers to fill out an in-person application on an official form. The agent then had to mail the applications to the DNR, where workers ran them through an optical scanner to get the information into language that computers could understand.

"The old system dates back to a time when mom-and-pop sporting-goods stores and hardware stores were where people got their licenses," Taylor said. "Over time, the big-box chains came in and started replacing the mom-and-pops."

Today in some parts of the state, DNR officials have trouble finding businesses that want to handle license sales.

"Most of our [agent-based] license sales come from Walmart and Kmart stores," Taylor said.

Large-volume license vendors went to a computer-based system years ago. In March 2005, DNR officials launched "point-of-sale" licensing, for which they issued computers and printers to agents that sold more than $30,000 worth of licenses each year. The computers allowed agents to process applications much more quickly, and provided licenses that could easily be replaced if lost or destroyed.

"And with point-of-sale, agents never ran out of licenses or stamps," Taylor said.

The next step in the DNR's evolution came in 2006, when agency officials started selling licenses online from its Go Wild! website. Online sales were slow for a couple of years until sportsmen caught on.

Soon, though, resident hunters discovered how convenient it was to purchase licenses online.

The number of resident licenses sold online has increased steadily ever since.

"In 2007, residents bought 80,000 licenses online. In 2009, they bought 107,000. In 2011, they bought 126,000," Taylor said.

With online and computer-based point-of-sale now occupying huge chunks of the agency's annual license-sales volume, DNR officials believe it's time to jump to a system that does away with paper licenses altogether.

"We actually wanted to do this 12 years ago, but the price tag at the time came in multiple millions [of dollars]," Taylor said. "There weren't many companies [that set them up] then, and those that were in the game were doing it only as a sideline. Now there are time-tested companies that specialize in these systems, and the price has come down."

The system DNR officials hope to set up would not only include license sales, but also would allow hunters to electronically check deer, turkeys and bears they kill.

Currently the law requires that those animals be checked within 24 hours of the kill at an official state game checking station located in the county of the kill or a county directly adjacent.

Taylor said sportsmen often complain that they can't find an open station, or that open stations are located inconveniently.

"We get comments - they can't find a checking station, or a station is too far away, or is closed when they get there," he said.

"Imagine how convenient it would be to check your deer, or whatever, over a computer or a cellphone. The hunter would get a number generated by the DNR's computer, write that number down, attach it to the animal and everything would be perfectly legal."

Checking would still be mandatory; hunters caught with animals that didn't have computer-generated numbers would be fined. Taylor believes the electronic system might even increase hunters' willingness to check their kills.

"In some states that have gone to electronic checking, the reporting rate has gone up," he said.

Taylor said it was too early to estimate how much the new system would cost to install because companies haven't yet made estimates based on the DNR's requirements. He indicated, though, that it should eventually pay for itself by eliminating the ongoing costs of printing paper licenses and handling the applications.

"Right now, we spend between $500,000 and $1 million a year administering the old paper system," he explained.

Past attempts to go to a paperless system have drawn complaints from existing small-volume license agents and from business owners that operate game-checking stations. Taylor said those businesses could easily continue to sell licenses and check hunters' kills, simply by making a computer available.

"We have businesses right now that sell licenses without being 'official' license agents because they let their customers access the Go Wild! system through the business' computer," he added.

Taylor estimated that it would take at least a year to purchase, tweak and implement the proposed new electronic system.

"We've listened to sportsmen's concerns, and we know they're frustrated at how slow the current system can be," he said. "But we can't rush the new system; we have to get it right. We can't afford to waste sportsmen's money."

Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or johnmccoy@wvgazette.com.


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