Montana’s hotline for reporting hunting and fishing violations is where many cases have started in the last three decades.
New hunters learn about 1-800-TIP-MONT in hunter education, and when they pick up any regulation book, they see reminders printed throughout Montana’s hunting regulations.
Started in the mid-1980s, TIP-MONT offers callers confidentiality or even anonymity to report suspected poachers, trespassers or any other manner of information from illegal off-road driving to urban wildlife conflicts.
“It’s definitely been a thing more amongst the hunting community,” said Brian Shinn, TIP-MONT coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “But we are a crime stopper hotline and it’s something we’d like other demographics in the state to be aware of. Whether they’re watching wildlife, hiking or biking, many of them haven’t heard of us.”
Shinn has led TIP-MONT for more than a decade. In its first year the hotline received less than 100 calls. Now about 4,000 tips come in annually, reported 24/7.
“The culture has changed, the population has changed and culturally people seem to have a different outlook on people that take away from the resource,” he said. “I think there are more people willing to step forward.”
TIP-MONT has a memorandum of understanding with Montana Highway Patrol, which takes calls when the main hotline is not staffed. Shinn employs five former MHP dispatchers for hunting season. When a call comes in, they dispatch it via computer and a call to game wardens in the field.
Callers can choose to remain anonymous or be willing to talk with a game warden confidentially.
“Each warden has an area of about 2,000 square miles,” Shinn said. “I know there’s an expectation that we’ll be there quickly, but that is not always the case if a warden is out of position. But every report generated through TIP-MONT will have law enforcement look at it.”
A shift in funding that has meant wardens spending less time on enforcement also makes citizen tips that much more important, he added.
Helena-area Warden Sgt. Justin Hawkaluk recommends that those witnessing violations key in on as many “identifiers” as safely possible, such as photos, license plate numbers, GPS coordinates and detailed descriptions.
“First off, don’t involve yourself where you put yourself in danger, but then be a good witness,” he said, holding up his cellphone. “Anymore you have this at your disposal, so utilize that.”
Shinn has seen an uptick in trespassing-related calls. At the end of the season, TIP-MONT gets a lot of calls on illegally dumped carcasses. Shinn also receives an increasing number of hunters self-reporting violations.
“It’s people that make honest mistakes and instead of doing the wrong thing and trying to cover it up, they’ve realized they’re far better off to make a call to TIP-MONT and take their lumps,” he said.
TIP-MONT fields its share of other calls as well, including criminal mischief, reports of pollution, suicidal people and even the discovery of a human body – all of which are forwarded to the proper authorities, he added.
Shinn sees plenty of calls – about 1,500 of the 4,000 – from people looking for information, such as “Can I shoot a cow elk here?”
“We do not give any information on regs because we don’t know where they’re at,” he said, clarifying that witnesses should call in suspected natural resource violations, including those for federal land managers.
The quality of calls varies often depending on location.
In more urban areas, Hawkaluk estimates 10 percent or less of calls result in some enforcement action, but he emphasized a high call volume. Information calls such as the location of a herd of elk and likely conflicts to urban wildlife complaints account for a large portion of TIP-MONT reports.
In more rural areas, such as Hawkaluk’s former region in central Montana, he saw more TIP-MONT calls coming in from locals providing detailed reports of poaching.
“We don’t dismiss any calls and every call is valuable,” he said. “With that one little bit of info you provide might be piece of a case down the road.”
Statewide, an average of 25 percent of TIP-MONT calls lead to enforcement action, Shinn said.
Technology has played the biggest role in TIP-MONT’s ability to relay information that can break cases.
Like other law enforcement, wardens are linked into a computer system that provides case information and details on tips. Hawkaluk said that system is only expected to improve in the next few years.
Social media has also become a major player, with solicitations for information on suspected cases often turning into a flood of calls.
While they have not launched text message reporting, computer reporting is available and can be valuable for detailed investigations, Shinn said. If a violation is occurring, however, it is always better to call in, he added.
Cellphones have perhaps made the biggest contribution, Shinn said, with witnesses acting in the moment to make a report. In the past, a witness may have gotten home and decided not to call in for whatever reason, but timely information does make a difference, he said.
Overall, Shinn believes Montana’s game wardens see TIP-MONT as a valuable tool in the toolbox.
TIP-MONT callers may receive up to a $1,000 reward and Shinn says he averages about $16,000 paid out per year. Interestingly, many callers choose to forego the reward.
“The people that are calling in general aren’t calling in for a reward,” he said. “They’re doing it for the right reasons, because they care about the resource. Some people even get the check in the mail and send it back.”