Teaching non-hunters, and hunters, about hunting


Hunter education student taking shooting test.

I may be unique in the world for having taught more non-hunters the basics of hunting than anyone else.

Let me explain.

For years, I taught a course titled "Living With Wildlife" at Utah State University. Obviously, and especially in Utah, one of the ways people interact with wildlife is by shooting and eating them. It was a large class, averaging about 100 students from a variety of majors. I wanted all students to understand the education requirements for hunters in the state, so I made all students, hunters and non-hunters alike, take this course. Yes, even the hunters, who had already gone through hunter education (HE) and may have had years of hunting experience. The only ways to opt out of this were to demonstrate that you had taken HE within the past year (happened once), a judge said you couldn't be around firearms (once), you were ethically opposed to touching firearms (usually one student per semester), or firearms were a "triggering event" for you (rare, but real). Some students had concealed firearm permits, and wanted to know whether this could substitute. After I learned that there was no hands-on experience required for a concealed carry permit, I decided it would not serve as a substitute. Oh, and here's an interesting sidenote. As a university employee, I was prohibited to ask a student if they had a concealed carry permit if I observed a firearm. I was directed to call campus police if there was an issue. I am certain that there were loaded, concealed firearms in my classroom during every class session.

Statewide, the average age of HE students is probably 12-13 years. The average age of my students was 20-22. That's why I made the hunters take it again... it had been 10 years since they took the course. In addition, as adults, we could have in-depth discussions about ethics that you don't or can't have with a 12 year old. 

Consistently, the students were fairly equally divided into men and women. Of the women, 2-5 would already have earned their HE certification card (called a "C card"). Of the men, about half would have had their C cards, but only half of those currently had hunted in the last few years. So, the class was about 25% active hunters. I never asked students to identify as anti-hunter, but I would guess from discussions that there were 10-15 leaning that direction every semester. The majority were non-hunters.

Since these college students were very comfortable with navigating on-line, I chose the on-line option as opposed to the 6-12 hour instructor-led course. They had to present to me the full set of module quizzes from this state-approved, on-line course, with a score of 100% for each module. No exceptions. Of course, you could retake a quiz as often as you needed but, as I told the students, some of the questions were going to appear on the course exams, so there was some incentive to paying attention.

This whole process cost the students money. The state Hunter Education Registration Certificate cost $10 (now $12). The on-line course then cost $13-$29 (at the time, there were course options. Every student chose the least expensive option). For the field day, the Cache Valley Public Shooting Range provided .22 rifles and targets, and students' course fees covered facility use, ammo, safety glasses, hearing protection, refreshments, and lunch or dinner for the volunteer range safety officer and HE instructors. Some students complained about the cost, and most of these were hunters ("Why do I have to pay for it again?"), However, the majority of students said they were glad to have this opportunity. After all, their fathers, brothers, friends, and significant others hunted, and they wanted to learn more. The expense was noted in the course syllabus, along with the textbook costs.

I limited a HE class to 20 students, so with100 students, I had two concurrent field days on a Friday evening, two concurrent field days on Saturday, and 1-2 field days on Sunday. There was a range safety officer, and 2-3 instructors for each session.  Safety first!  In addition, students needed to sign an "Informed Consent, Waiver, Release, and Indemnity for Participation in Activity" form approved by our Risk Management Office.  It stated, in part:

  • The shooting test consists of live firing with a .22 rifle at targets 50 feet from the shooter. Students must fire five practice shots at the bulls eye target, 10 shots in the prone position at the target, 10 shots at the target in the sitting or kneeling position and 10 shots at the target in the standing position.
  • All safety requirements prescribed by the Cache Valley Public Shooting Range must be followed. These include wearing hearing protection, eye protection, and clothing appropriate for shooting (t-shirt or shirt with a closed collar), as well as hand-washing following the shooting activities. All commands of the Range Safety Officer must be followed at all times, and horseplay and carelessness are grounds for instant dismissal from the facility. Risks and dangers include hearing and eye damage, injury or death through accidental shooting, cuts to the face because of recoil, burns and cuts from handling recently fired ammunition, lead contamination, and other shooting-related injuries. Safety issues will be reviewed prior to and during any shooting activity.
  • I acknowledge that I am fully familiar with potential dangers and inherent risks associated with participation in this event and I hereby agree to assume all risks associated with such participation including but not limited to personal injury from travel related accidents, the physical dynamics of the activity itself, natural and manmade obstacles; hazardous surfaces, environmental conditions, and other risks which in combination with the actions of mine could result in severe or fatal injury. I acknowledge that I am fully familiar with safety equipment appropriate for this type of activity and will utilize all such equipment and assume all risks for equipment use, failure to use proper equipment or equipment failure.

In over 10 years of doing this, I recorded one injury... a student ejected a spent brass casing and it landed inside the shirt of an adjacent student. Hot! But, no blood, no foul.

During this week, in the campus classroom we would have a visit from a state conservation officer (CO). They are supposed to visit hunter education classes, to introduce students to what COs do. Remember, the average age for most classes is 12-13 years, so giving that particular presentation to a group of college students 10 years older isn't ideal. Eventually, I worked with CO Dominick Barratt to develop a hour long role-playing scenario of a real-life illegal elk shooting case, where pre-selected students actually played the parts of the various characters in his investigation. From the initial Park City resident reporting the dead elk near her home, to the interviews with all the neighbors, the necropsy of the elk itself, and the actual resolution of the case, students listened with rapt attention.

Utah CO Barratt discussing methods for determining time of death for a poached elk.

Over the week, we would also discuss hunting accident statistics and causes over the past 30 years, and have a robust discussion of hunting ethics and the ethics of hunting.

While one group of students was shooting at the range, the concurrent class was watching videos related to hunting ethics and demonstrating safe firearm handling and carry techniques. At the end of the field day, students would take a state-mandated, multiple choice quiz. If they passed the written test, completed the live-fire exercise, and demonstrated a safe attitude, they passed the HE course. 

Students taking HE written test.

I had a number of anti-gun students over the years who did not want to participate in the live-fire activity, but after I explained that I respected their position, but they would still have to do everything except touch a firearm. And I reminded them that we live in a society awash in firearms. Without first hand experience, how would they know whether a person with a firearm was handling it safely? How would they know what to do if they had to remove a firearm from the hands of a friend or child? Would they like the experience of knowing how to make a firearm "safe" by opening the action, checking to see if it was loaded or holding ammo, and storing it correctly? After this discussion, I only had a single student decide not to participate, and she aced the written test!

At the end of the semester, I would take advantage of the final exam process to assess student attitudes. For example, I gave them three short scenarios dealing with hunting ethics, and asked them for their reaction. Here's one, and a graph depicting how students responded:

Note that 63% of the students answered "A", and the second highest response was for "C" (26%). 

I also used the final to ask students whether I was a hunter! Now, they listened to me lecture about wildlife issues every week for 15 weeks. I was their hunter education instructor. I led discussions about hunting ethics. I also had a similar week devoted to trapping and trapping issues. Look at these responses from one year:

I like to think that these results prove that I was teaching, not preaching! And the majority of the hunters grudgingly admitted that they were glad they went through the process again. They had not thought actively about safety and ethics for awhile.

Over the years, I calculated that I taught over 1000 college students. The majority of these students were not active hunters. Thus, I stand by my beginning sentence that, "I may be unique in the world for having taught more non-hunters the basics of hunting than anyone else."

As a side note, prior to this course, "Living with Wildlife," I taught the wildlife techniques course in the wildlife department. We discussed trapping, radio-telemetry, population estimation techniques, and much more. I worked with a colleague, Fred Baker, on a shooting exercise. We lined up a variety of firearms, ranging from an Olympic style air rifle with a 30x scope and a 2 ounce trigger pull, to a .308 rifle with a 4x scope with a 2 pound trigger pull. The idea was to have students just experience the variety of firearms they may come across or use. One semester we were visited by a reporter!


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