HELENA, Mont. – Hundreds of people barred from having guns because they are felons on parole or probation are still able to get hunting licenses in Montana with no questions asked, an Associated Press investigation found.
Montana may not be alone. While nearly all states ban felons from possessing guns, only a handful — including Rhode Island and Maine — keep them from receiving hunting permits, and just a few others — such as Illinois and Massachusetts — require hunters to show both a hunting license and a firearms license.
"Our license dealers have no way of checking," said Lt. Rich Mann, with the enforcement program for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "If someone wants to play with the system and beat you at it, they will."
The AP examination of Montana hunting and corrections records shows at least 660 felons on parole or probation received tags in the past year. The findings are based on a comparison of unique first, middle and last names, along with other identifiable information, that appeared in databases of both hunters and felons.
A state probation official said the findings likely would prompt the state to consider its own records search to see if parolees are violating terms of their release.
"Obviously that's a big concern, and it makes me want to look into each of these cases," said Ron Alsbury, Montana's probation and parole bureau chief.
The licenses don't specifically require the use of firearms to hunt, and state officials note that most felons could legally hunt using other weapons, such as bows. Several people contacted by the AP said they hunted legally with bows while on probation.
However, bows are hardly the weapon of choice for some of the game for which felons were issued tags, such as birds or bison.
Jason Beaudoin of Frenchtown, on probation for a 2002 conviction for assault with a deadly weapon, got a series of hunting tags last year, but said he used only a bow and arrow.
"I know I can't own a firearm or be in possession of one. They made that very clear ... and I agree with the policy," Beaudoin said.
"There are plenty of ways people can hunt even though they are barred from using conventional weapons," added Gary S. Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association. "My guess is that there are a lot of them that are being perfectly decent citizens."
The problem is, no one knows for certain.
Some states, including Montana, check for hunting violations as a routine part of a hunting license application, but don't run spot checks to see if convicted felons are among those applying for licenses or if they plan to use firearms.
"The result in Idaho is that you could theoretically be a convicted cannibal and still have a hunting license," said Ed Mitchell, a spokesman for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Boise. "But if you are a convicted cannibal, you cannot legally own a bent BB gun in the state of Idaho."
With millions of hunters in the U.S. — nearly 270,000 in Montana alone — authorities in many states say it simply would be too difficult to check if felons are getting hunting tags.
North Dakota officials make sure hunters aren't delinquent on their child support, and deny permits to those who are, but they don't check for felony convictions.
Colorado, like most states, relies on its law banning felons from possessing guns to discourage them from applying for hunting licenses. Still, every year game wardens find someone with a felony conviction hunting with a firearm and a legally obtained hunting license, said Bob Thompson, assistant chief of law enforcement for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
Florida officials said one of their game officers was killed by a felon who was hunting with a gun.
The AP review found that roughly 8 percent of 8,732 people on parole or probation in Montana had obtained hunting licenses in the past year.
Many hunters with felony convictions had no listed phone numbers, while others did not return calls seeking comment.
In rare cases the state even gave hunting licenses to felons who didn't ask for them.
One convicted felon contacted by the AP, Larry Pettijohn, wasn't aware he held a bird hunting license. The state gave it to him for free because he qualified for it as a senior citizen who had purchased a state conservation license, the base permit for both hunters and anglers.
"All I ever do is fish," said Pettijohn, of Missoula, on parole for felony drunken driving and being a persistent felon. "I don't have a gun. Not allowed to."
One case made national news late last year when one of the hunters with a prized tag for Montana's limited and controversial bison hunt turned out to be on parole or probation for a felony. He gave up his hunting tags before the season started.
Alsbury said his agency did a spot check of its records about five years ago to see if violators had hunting tags. Officers confiscated some guns.
Alsbury said the AP investigation suggests it may be time to search again.
"With the technology we have now we should be routinely checking that," he said.