August 18, 2022
This month I'll enter my third decade as a volunteer Hunter Education instructor for Montana's Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department. Actually, I’m not doing this for the department. Because I'm a selfish muck, I do it mainly for myself, with the perennial hope that some stray comment or perspective might hit a student in the right way, and they'll see my view of our shared obligation to the animals we hunt.
There are maybe half a dozen instructors in my little town, and we've been teaching together so long we know which chapters of the coursebook each will lead, and who we can count on to come to Saturday's field day. I generally teach the squishier parts of the course, the ones on situational ethics and how to tell your dad or your uncle that he can't count your geese in his limit, or drive off the designated BLM route to retrieve a downed elk.
Part of my schtick about personal responsibility talks about deciding the sort of person these students want to be when nobody's looking. I also spend a fair amount of time talking about what we owe wild animals. It's my goal—along with that of the other instructors—to graduate new hunters who have a sound basis in gun handling, wildlife identification, regulations, ethics and the expectation that to hunt is to learn continuously.
That's a pretty laudable goal, and it's one I share with roughly 55,000 fellow instructors across the country who teach hunter ed courses in church basements, the backrooms of American Legion halls, and in community rooms of courthouses and libraries in every state.
But, just like my little cadre of reliable instructors, the hunter educators who answer the call are getting older every year, and there seem to be fewer younger parents and passionate hunters to take our place as we age out of the ranks. The case is even more dire for bowhunter education instructors.
We're not alone. Across America, church councils and volunteer fire departments are struggling to find folks to donate their time and knowledge. The COVID-19 pandemic surely didn't help—our hunter ed courses went to online instruction during the lockdown—but the decline in volunteerism is older and more durable than COVID.
The national R3 movement (recruit, retain and reactivate) to promote hunting is gaining momentum, and we happily have more people interested in hunting now than any time in the past decade. Many adult-onset hunters are keen to get in the field, but because many have no family tradition of hunting or no prior experience with guns, they're in special need of thoughtful, patient instruction. In other words, you and your knowledge.
Many states throw up a high bar for hunter educator certification. But most allow prospective instructors to test-drive the course by sitting in on a classroom or team-teaching a chapter. That's a great way to find out if the course material and delivery is for you. But even if it's not, every course can use someone with your knowledge to help with the field day or other course components.
States have a strong incentive to keep certifying new hunters. After all, it's how they continue to ensure customers. We existing hunters have a strong interest in ensuring that those new hunters come to the field with basic knowledge and ethics. If that's not a good argument for starting your own 20-year (or even 1-year) commitment as a volunteer instructor, I'll give you just one more.
In every course I teach, I tell students they are about to enter an exclusive club of hunters, one that has fairly high standards for membership. If they want to be accepted, then passing their written test is just the first measure. They also need to handle guns safely, to chase animals fairly, and to welcome other qualified hunters into the club in turn.
I tell them that game wardens and their parents aren't the members of the club that they most need to impress. It's the existing hunters, the ones they don't yet know who have been out in the field, learning the habits of game and the lay of the local land, and judging the newcomers. Some of them are just like me, hunter education instructors. We hope you’ll join us, if only to ensure that every new class of hunters carries forward the high standards that you do.