Over the next few months, nearly three-quarters of a million Americans will be certified to become hunters. They’re the graduates of each state’s Hunter Education and Bowhunter Education programs, and the numbers are impressive. The rolling average for the past 10 years is that somewhere around 650,000 new hunters are certified annually through state-delivered courses, many of which are held in the winter and spring months.
Who teaches these beginning hunters? I do, along with some 50,000 fellow hunter education instructors.
And you should, too.
We talk a lot in this space about the power of mentoring, about how teaching someone your skills and perspectives is what makes a hunter out of an interested beginner. But in some ways, we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves. The fundamental relationship most beginning hunters have with an experienced hunter is in a formal Hunter Education course, typically delivered by volunteer instructors using a state-certified textbook and other lesson plans.
You may recall your own Hunter Ed or Bowhunter Ed course, and I’m betting many of you are wincing with the memory. Some are wonderful. Others are adequate. But too many are tedious misery. What makes the difference? The program—sure—but the main influence on the outcome is the instructors.
I’ve been a Montana Hunter Education volunteer instructor for 16 years, and a Bowhunter Ed instructor for 14 years. When I worked for Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department, I ran the hunter education program in my part of the state, and much of my job was recruiting, retaining, and trying to reactivate (and support) these adult instructors. I say this in way of both context and background, because what I’m going to say next won’t sit well with everyone: Hunter Ed instructors are both the best and worst things about our system of certifying beginning hunters.
Best: Many of these instructors are gifted educators, and they pour their knowledge and passion into their volunteer work. They love passing on their traditions, they’re deeply concerned that new hunters are safe, ethical, and knowledgeable. They’re the hot spark that starts a lifetime of passionate participation in their students.
Worst: Some instructors are tired, uninspired, and continue to teach mainly because they extract some status from their positions. They lecture and don’t welcome feedback. They leave students feeling intimidated, bored, and waiting for class to end, not in order to begin a lifetime of hunting, but simply to get out of the stifling atmosphere of the classroom.
In 2016, the last year for which data was readily available, 46,415 Hunter Education instructors were certified to teach in all states. Another 6,365 instructors taught Bowhunter Education. In that same year, 574,880 students passed their state’s Hunter Ed program, and another 6,365 passed Bowhunter Education.
Do the math: That means that each hunter ed instructor taught an average of 12.4 students. The instructor-to-pupil ratio is better for bowhunter ed—6.4 students per teacher—but this should rattle you. Remember previous McKean Minutes in which we talked about the most effective way to mentor is to spend one-on-one time with your “mentee”? We’re not anywhere close to that in our hunter education courses.
Of course, we’ll never have 650,000 volunteer hunter ed instructors, but I challenge you to raise the number in your community by one. Reach out to your state wildlife agency. Find out how to become a hunter ed instructor. Commit to training, and then helping out with a course. The more of us who help, the less work for each one of us.
Not all mentoring happens in the field. Discover how to reach new hunters in a classroom, and light a spark that will burn for years.