Brian Cheney needed a Hunter Education class. His 15-year-old son was raring to go upland hunting on a trip to South Dakota. If he took a Hunter Education class—the critical first step required by all 50 states to buy a hunting license—he’d join a band of family and friends that chases pheasants every fall.
Cheney went online to find a Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Hunter Ed class for his son. There was an Internet-only option, in which students take a class and test online, but it was available only to students at least 16 years old. For those who were 11 to 15 years old, there was an Internet + Field Day option, where after passing the test students had to demonstrate safe handling of firearms at a state-offered range day With a 15-year-old itching to hunt, Cheney, a month before the trip, had to find an in-person class or a field day. The only in-person class listed online was 90 miles away. He tried to sign up, but it was full. He checked field days. Also, full. “I called gun ranges,” said Cheney. “I called sportsman’s clubs. I found lots of firearms safety classes, but no one had youth Hunter Ed.”
His son didn’t go hunting that year.
“To call it a disappointment is an understatement,” said Cheney.
An American Tradition
In 1949, New York state wanted to ensure its hunters received some basic firearms certification, so it reached out to the National Rifle Association, which developed the first Hunter Ed course in the United States. Several other states followed suit, and that pamphlet course certified generations of American hunters until a 1970 federal amendment of the Pittman-Robertson Act provided dollars for individual state hunter safety programs.
By the 1980s, a Hunter Ed card was a requirement for new hunters to buy a hunting license in all 50 states. The NRA slowly got out of the hunter certification business as states developed their own unique curriculums. State-by-state course content made sense then—and now. What needs to be emphasized beyond basic gun safety to a student eager to hunt mule deer in the mountains of Montana isn’t necessarily what a duck hunter in Connecticut needs to know.
The next major evolution of Hunter Ed came in 2002, when Idaho developed the first online course, in conjunction with Kalkomey, a Texas-based educational and software development firm that now runs online components of Hunter Ed for 46 states at hunter-ed.com. There are a handful of other online course providers, but if you or your children took an online Hunter Ed class, odds are Kalkomey built it. About 650,000 new hunters take a Hunter Ed course every year, and by some estimates, more than half satisfy the required classroom hours online.
“You hear all the reports on how hunting is going down, but we have lots of data that shows graduation rates of basic Hunter Ed have maintained at 650,000 to 700,000 students a year,” said David Allen, executive director of the International Hunter Education Association (IHEA), which sets curriculum standards for all 50 states. “That’s a lot of new hunters.”
Every single new hunter helps keep the tradition alive, but even 700,000 new hunters a year won’t blunt the sharp reality of the participation decline in American hunting.
Baby boomers still make up the largest cohort of hunters, but in 15 years most will age out and stop buying hunting licenses, accelerating a projected 30 percent overall decline in hunter numbers, according to the National Survey of Hunting, Fishing, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. Thirty percent is also the new hunter drop-out rate, according to Allen and IHEA-USA. That is, of those 700,000 new hunters introduced every year, 30 percent are not hunting three years after graduation.
“We’re not making new hunters fast enough,” said Eric Dinger, CEO of Powder-hook, a smartphone app that encourages hunting mentorship and lists every known Hunter Ed class in the United States. “That’s the whole problem. It doesn’t help that a Hunter Ed class, if you can get in one, is a less-fun version of SAT prep. A 12-year-old who’s played Fortnite their whole life might find it a little dry.”
Time for a Change?
In a world where you can buy a hubcap for a 1938 Buick online in 45 seconds or learn to gut a deer—or rewire a nuclear reactor—on YouTube in a few minutes, our expectations for instant information has never been greater while our attention spans have plummeted. Everything is instant. Everything, it seems, but getting a Hunter Ed certificate.
E-commerce companies talk a lot about “friction.” Amazon Prime has the least friction. You see something, click one button, and it’s on your doorstep two days later. Hunting in general—and Hunter Ed in specific—has loads of friction. To sit on a bucket in a dove field, you need to take a class; pass a test; buy a license; buy a gun, ammo, and accessories; then learn to shoot; and finally find a place to set down your bucket. It’s especially daunting for new hunters who don’t have the advantage of a hunting family.
Many, like Dinger, Allen, and others, are talking about removing some of that overall hunting friction by tweaking the way we do Hunter Ed. But that’s a knot of 10,000 different issues. Of course, gun safety is important, and needs to be drilled in, but what’s the most effective way to do that? How do you get 50 states on the same page? How do you do it under the guidelines of Pittman-Robertson, which provides the funding that makes it all possible? What’s the best way to engage new students?
Anyone who has sat through a Hunter Ed in-person class or clicked through an online version must admit the material runs a little flat. Part of the reason is the time requirement. IHEA-USA sets the parameters for what content needs to be included in a Hunter Ed course. States require classes to satisfy a certain number of core Hunter Ed hours. Online courses are programmed the same way.
When I became a Hunter Ed Instructor in my home state of New York, I was introduced to my county’s master instructor as “one of the best in the state.” Before launching into a two-hour PowerPoint before a room of bored-looking students, he preps them by saying, “It’s time to eat your vegetables.”
Mitch Strobl, vice president of Agency Relations at Kalkomey, which designs in-class and online curriculum used by most states, doesn’t think it’s fair to say the course hasn’t aged well. “There are certain things we have to teach,” he said. “It might not be the most engaging for some, but the ‘Four Rules of Gun Safety’ are the four rules. With the online course platform, we have the opportunity to make the content much more exciting and interactive than we’re able to in a student manual. We run a 4.8 out of a five-star satisfaction rating online, so to say everyone is unhappy is not a fair evaluation.”
There is no magic way to engage all 700,000 students that take Hunter Ed every year, but that hasn’t stopped a few groups from trying. Five years ago, the NRA got back in the game and now provides a free online course for states to use. The project started after an executive at NRA expressed interest in hunting.
“It was August, and we couldn’t get him into an in-person class, because they were all full,” said Peter Churchborne, the former program director of Hunter Services for the NRA and current director of the Hunters’ Leadership Forum. “So we put him in front of an online course, and looking over his shoulder, it was very clear to me that it wasn’t very good. Read and click, read and click, maybe watch a video. Not very engaging. After that, we started brainstorming a better way to do it.”
The NRA teamed up with an educational developer in Salt Lake City and soon had a product to show state hunting education coordinators. “When we started, five different providers sold Hunter Ed classes online, from $9.99 to $39.99, and we felt we could offer something free, free to the students and free to the states,” said Churchborne.
Despite the turnkey solution and no dollar cost of entry on the state’s part, the NRA version has been slow to roll out. Only eight states are using the free course. Some have hinted at the red tape and the snail-like pace of everything government, but Churchborne says the push to free online is simply a mind-shift for many in the Hunter Ed community.
“The majority of Hunter Ed is taught is by volunteers, and they’re extremely passionate about what they do,” he said. “And with any business or governmental agency, instituting change takes time. These are positives, not negatives. There are lots of really great people out there invested in the solution and willing to give it time.”
States may have time. Parents and young professionals who want to hunt typically do not. This reality has led many Hunter Ed nerds to openly ask if it’s time for states to dump the in-person or field-day requirement?
In-person classes are valuable, and they’re still in high demand as many students want a hands-on course. But some states struggle with seasonal bottlenecks—meeting the rush of new hunters wanting to get certified, say, a month before deer season. Online classes can help that, but only so much if required field days are limited or fill quickly.
In states like New York, where I teach, the lack of in-person classes is a glaring problem in some regions, never mind that there is no real Internet option—field day or otherwise. My rural county upstate with a deep hunting tradition has a small army of motivated instructors that teach nearly every weekend of peak season. Around New York City and other urban centers in the state, this is not the case. I know a half-dozen young professionals in New York City who want to hunt, but cannot find Hunter Ed classes, or if they do, they’re booked-up months in advance.
Ending the in-person requirement is incredibly controversial. Want to start an argument fast? Declare in a room of Hunter Ed instructors that there’s no need for in-person anything. The thinking that gun safety lessons must be done in-person is that entrenched. But data collected by IHEA-USA makes you wonder.
IHEA-USA collects figures on hunter accidents afield, both nonfatal and fatal. The numbers show little correlation between the method of Hunter Ed instruction and accidents. That is, the handful of states that have Internet-only options do not show a spike in accidents afield, nor do states with in-person requirements prove any safer. Overall, hunting accidents are extremely rare. There were 46 hunting-related fatalities in 2018, and 15.6 million Americans bought hunting licenses that year.
“I will get in trouble for saying this, but we need more flexibility from the state agencies and their volunteers,” said Allen with IHEA-USA. “But now, believe it or not, we’re starting to see some of that happening.”
Our New (Isolated) World
I first spoke to Brian Cheney about the challenges of getting his son into a Hunter Ed class in late March, as an estimated 97 percent of the U.S. population was under some kind of stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order in the face of the national coronavirus outbreak.
Overnight, nearly every in-person Hunter Ed class and field day in the country were canceled.
In a cloudy world where silver linings are hard to find, one potential upshot of this pandemic is how it’s forced us to reevaluate long-held beliefs as they relate to congregating in groups, how we sneeze in public, or how willing we are to crowd into a classroom for seven cramped hours with a bunch of perfect strangers.
Shortly after I spoke with Cheney, Nebraska changed the guidelines for Hunter Ed classes. The 16-year-old age restriction on online classes was lifted. Any Nebraska resident age 11 and up could take an online Hunter Ed class without a field day requirement through at least May 31.
Kentucky kept its field day qualification, but in the teeth of a global pandemic, they came up with an innovative solution.
Students, with the help of an adult mentor, made videos of themselves demonstrating the basics of safe firearms handling — like trigger discipline, loading, and unloading — then uploaded them to the state for approval. After an instructor reviewed the footage, a Hunter Ed certificate was dropped in the mail.
To the great credit of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, my home state has perhaps moved the furth-est along. After cancelling more than 150 in-person classes that would have credentialed 2,600 new hunters before spring turkey season, the state rolled out a 100-percent online Hunter Ed course, going from effectively zero to 100 in a matter of weeks. There is no plan to eliminate in-person classes down the road, but if this new online version is successful and remains an option for busy parents and new hunters, it will go a long way to reduce the overall friction new hunters face in the Empire State.
Strobl said all 50 states are grappling with these decisions in the face of the pandemic. Some states have added a new “field day” section to its online course material, while some exempted any in-person requirement altogether. “The attitude here and with the states is let’s figure this thing out,” said Strobl. “As a community, we’ve come together to make necessary changes, while maintaining educational integrity. No one is lowering the standards here. We’re all actively looking at new ways to make new hunters.”
Cheney, for his part, sees a South Dakota pheasant hunt in his son’s future. After I updated him on the recent rule change, he was pretty brief on the phone. “Thank you,” he said, “Now I have to go and sign him right up.