- Associated Press - Friday, June 6, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - A state audit of North Dakota’s Game and Fish Department found scores of discrepancies with the agency’s practices, including improper payments to employees and more than 100 guns missing from a volunteer hunter education program.

The review, conducted by the state auditor’s office, criticized the Game and Fish Department’s misuse of public money, warning “improvements are needed.” The audit also found the agency in “noncompliance with laws, rules, and policies related to human resources and use of resources.”

Game and Fish Director Terry Steinwand said Friday that the agency was “stunned” by the audit and that corrective actions were being taken.

“We thought we were doing better and we are going to do better,” Steinwand said. “We expect more of ourselves. “

Game and Fish regulates hunting, fishing and trapping; manages land; and promotes conservation. The agency is supported by state licensing fees and federal tax money from the sale of firearms, ammunition and other sporting equipment.

The audit said the agency also wasn’t complying with procurement requirements and “used no formal bidding process or an appropriate alternative procurement process for services exceeding $25,000.”

Auditors also said a program called Private Lands Open to Sportsmen is not operating effectively. The program offers payments to landowners who agree to keep their property open to public hunting. The program costs about $13 million every two years, and accounts for about a third of the agency’s budget, the audit said. Last year, about 760,000 acres were enrolled in the program, but the audit said the agency has set an unreasonable goal of setting aside 1 million acres.

Along with misuse of public money and the agency’s noncompliance with laws, policies and procedures, the audit took harsh aim at its lack of oversight for firearms provided to volunteer hunter education instructors. Game and Fish is required to take an annual inventory of the guns but has not done so, the audit said.

“(An agency) representative stated the location and security of all the guns was not known,” the audit said. “We identified guns kept in the Bismarck location were accessible by individuals who should not have access to them.”

Steinwand said an inventory is now being done with the goal of accounting for each firearm.

“We are going to have them in our possession by next Friday,” he said. “We think we know where they are at.”

The audit also criticized the agency for not safeguarding sensitive personal information, including Social Security numbers. The audit said employees dealing with such information are supposed to undergo background checks but that did not happen in some cases.

“Sensitive information stored electronically was accessible by employees who had no business related purpose to access such information,” the audit said.

Steinwand said agency supervisors will undergo training to ensure department policies and procedures are followed.

“We’re addressing this as aggressively as we can,” he said.

North Dakota lawmakers last year increased hunting, fishing and boating fees charged by the agency by about 15 percent, after Game and Fish officials said the fees had not kept up with inflation, and some had not been raised in more than 30 years.

The fee increase raised the agency’s budget by about $2.5 million annually.

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