‘Taylor Swift for hunters’: Idaho Fish and Game tag system crash sparks anger from hunters

An Idaho Department of Fish and Game hunting tag sale last week led to backlash from out-of-state residents who said the slow website, high demand and system crashes were akin to the debacle created last month when Ticketmaster struggled to meet demand for tickets to Taylor Swift’s latest tour.

On Dec. 1, Fish and Game held its annual sale for nonresident deer and elk tags. The sale allows hunters across the country to purchase tags for next year’s hunting seasons. Since 2020, Idaho Fish and Game has sold tags online through Go Outdoors Idaho, a system operated by vendor Brandt Information Systems. Brandt hosts similar platforms for 13 other states, including Oregon and Washington.

Just over 29,000 tags were up for grabs, including 800 tags set aside for Disabled American Veterans at a deep discount ($23.75 for deer and $39.75 for elk, compared with $351.75 for deer and $651.75 for elk with a regular nonresident tag).

By the end of the day, nearly all the tags were sold out amid record demand, according to the agency. The experience prompted some hunters to call on Fish and Game to change the way it handles the yearly sale.

‘The Taylor Swift effect’

George Culpepper, a South Carolina resident who has hunted in Idaho several times before, told the Idaho Statesman in a phone interview he tried to enter the Go Outdoors Idaho virtual waiting room when it opened at 9:30 a.m. but received error notices through the app. He tried accessing the system again on his computer, where he was again met with errors, and finally joined the queue at 10 a.m.

He was 15,000th in line.

Five minutes later, Fish and Game said in a post on Facebook that it would be pausing the sale until 10:30 a.m. since “license and tag sales (were) moving slowly across all sales channels.”

Fish and Game said people who had already logged on, like Culpepper, would keep their spot in line. Others would be assigned a place in the queue when they logged on.

Minutes after the sale resumed, officials again said sales were moving slowly. The agency paused sales once more shortly after noon, and the site remained on hold for two hours.

“We’re all sitting on this system like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” Culpepper said.

George Culpepper, of South Carolina, was one of thousands of hunters who tried to buy nonresident deer and elk tags through Idaho Fish and Game’s annual sale on Dec. 1. Culpepper and others dealt with a slow online system and hourslong queues.
George Culpepper, of South Carolina, was one of thousands of hunters who tried to buy nonresident deer and elk tags through Idaho Fish and Game’s annual sale on Dec. 1. Culpepper and others dealt with a slow online system and hourslong queues.

Culpepper, who is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, planned to buy disabled veteran tags for elk and deer. He didn’t make his way through the queue until 6:30 p.m. By then, the discounted tags he’d hoped to purchase were sold out.

Culpepper said the issues called to mind a recent ticket sales fiasco: Ticketmaster’s struggle to handle demand for tickets to Taylor Swift’s upcoming national tour.

“There was what some of us call the Taylor Swift effect,” Culpepper said. “It’s like Taylor Swift for hunters because the system crashed.”

Last month, Ticketmaster held a presale for the pop singer’s first tour in five years. Massive demand led to slow-moving queues, system crashes and frustrated fans — some of whom have sued Ticketmaster, alleging fraud and antitrust law violations. But for all the frustrated fans, thousands managed to snag seats, just like the thousands who secured deer and elk tags for Idaho’s 2023 season.

Lars Lindell, a Michigan resident who was trying to hunt in Idaho for the first time, said he also struggled with Go Outdoors Idaho last week. Like Culpepper, he dealt with error messages from the outset and was No. 13,602 when he first entered the queue.

Lindell said the app noted that refreshing the page wouldn’t cause users to lose their place in lane. However, he said when he refreshed the app, his position in line dropped down to 37,000.

Lindell eventually purchased an elk tag but said it took until the early morning hours of Dec. 2. Still, he said, he’d be willing to wait in line again for future Idaho hunts.

“You’ve got 49 other states of people wanting to hunt in (Idaho’s) pristine wilderness,” he said. “You’ve got to expect it’s not going to be easy.”

Fish and Game plans to troubleshoot tag system

In all, Fish and Game made $14.8 million selling nonresident tags and hunting licenses on Dec. 1 — an increase from $12.7 million last year. Agency spokesperson Roger Phillips told the Statesman 77% of all transactions were done online through Go Outdoors Idaho

The day after the sale, Fish and Game issued an apology to hunters for the delays and shared the post on its website and social media.

“Despite anticipating and planning for this high demand, our license sales system and website was overwhelmed for several hours,” the agency said. “The resulting delays led to frustration for many customers across all sales channels, including online, in person, and telephone.”

While some Facebook commenters were understanding, many took the opportunity to criticize the agency.

“Do better,” Paul Picciano wrote. “Every other state has somehow figured it out.”

“As a former Idaho resident who now purchases nonresident tags to hunt with family, I find this current system to be a total debacle. This is the third year in a row that your system hasn’t worked as advertised,” wrote Rich Garrett.

Fish and Game knew demand would be high. In a news release last month, the agency warned that some hunters experienced wait times of up to six hours last year and told hunters to prepare for high demand and slow processing. In a phone interview, Phillips told the Statesman the demand this year still took Fish and Game by surprise.

“You know you’re going to have rush hour traffic, but you don’t know how many cars there are going to be,” he said.

Some hunters offered suggestions in hopes of breaking up the traffic jam: a controlled hunt draw system, in which Fish and Game would randomly pick names. Another suggested different sale days for deer and elk.

Culpepper said he believes many nonresidents hunt in Idaho because disabled veteran tags are especially cheap, and Idaho allows veterans with lower disability ratings — 40% or more, per U.S. military ratings — to purchase them. He said raising the disability level to qualify for the discounted tags could help and also suggested removing them from the general tag sale.

“This Go Outdoors Idaho program has been a complete disaster, and this year was far worse” Culpepper said. “We should be able to expect that, especially as a government entity, things should go without any issues.”

Phillips said Fish and Game is open to suggestions but wants to ensure any solutions won’t have unintended consequences. For instance, he said, many nonresidents hope to buy both deer and elk tags, which could render separate sale days irrelevant for cutting traffic.

“Obviously we’re going to try to improve this,” Phillips said. “It always goes back to same root problem: too many people trying to buy tags all at the same time.

“I hate to just beg for people’s patience because it’s been a recurring problem,” he added. “This isn’t an uncommon problem, but we’d like to make it an uncommon problem.”