Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) A return to in-person hunter education could help improve hunter-landowner relations, but Montana’s wildlife department doesn’t support it.

On Thursday afternoon in the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks committee, Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, presented her bill to bring back an in-person field day to hunter’s education.

Before the onset of COVID, FWP required youth hunters to attend classroom instruction for the course work and all new hunters attended the field days, where students would demonstrate to instructors the skills they have learned. During COVID, the Gianforte administration changed its policy to allow all new hunters to complete the entire course online. Now the pandemic isn’t as dire, but FWP hasn’t brought back in-person field days.

That’s what Marler and cosponsor Rep. Neil Durham, R-Eureka, want to correct with House Bill 243.

“This bill simply clarifies that all new hunters born after 1985 must attend an in-person field day. They can still do the first part of the course online, if they wish. This doesn’t even change the part about kids doing it online. I’m just trying to get people in front of a firearms safety instructor to demonstrate that they understand gun safety,” Marler said. “I’ve been hearing a lot of folks over the last several years saying we need more hunter education, not less hunter education.”

Eleven people spoke in favor of the bill, including representatives of Montana’s hunting groups and the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association.

Mac Minard, Montana Outfitters and Guides Association executive director, said he originally wasn’t going to testify in support because he thought parents could oversee kids' gun safety.

“But this also applies to new adult hunters. And they might not have that mentor or that figure in their life,” Minard said. “This should be looked forward to; it should not be considered an impediment.”

Alexandria Stokman of Missoula could speak to the effect of the changes, because one of her children attended in-person hunter education classes and the young one didn’t. Stokman is also a hunter education instructor.

“I’m a huge proponent of the hands-on in-person field day. We would never let our children get driver's licenses without sitting behind the wheel of an actual car. Similarly, while reading, watching videos and being able to pass written tests for hunter education are important, putting those skills into practice creating a foundation for safety is imperative,” Stokman said.

Jeremy Harwood, Montana Bowhunters Association board member, said he witnessed an out-of-state hunter trying to complete the online course while enroute to hunt in Montana.

“This process has opened the door for misuse and ill preparation,” Harwood said.

There was only one opponent to the bill: FWP director Hank Worsech.

Worsech said he didn’t think the in-person field day could be renewed because there might not be enough instructors. Prior to COVID, FWP was having trouble meeting demand for the course in some places, Worsech said.

Hunter education instructors are volunteers who take great pride in instructing new hunters, and many had taught for decades prior to COVID. Worsech said FWP’s cadre of 800 volunteer instructors dropped to 425, although he didn’t clarify why or when that happened.

Many instructors turned away when FWP switched to online instruction without telling instructors what was happening. They felt abandoned because their only notice was an FWP email saying the change was “in the interest of customer service.”

Worsech said instructors didn’t want to teach if they didn’t have kids for the entire course. When FWP made the change in April 2021, FWP spokesman Greg Lemon said in-person courses wouldn’t be mandatory so attendance could be spotty but instructors could try to teach if they wanted. Glasgow hunting instructor Andrew McKean said that caused a number of instructors to consider quitting.

On Thursday, Marler cited numbers from a December survey of hunter education instructors conducted by FWP. About 350 instructors - about 30% - responded to the email survey. One of the questions asked if they wanted to stay active as an instructor and would teach a mandatory field day.

“The vast majority said they do plan to remain active. Some said they want to stay active but on a limited basis,” Marler said. “I know that some people didn’t want to do it, but I’m a little surprised to hear the director’s interpretation.”

Rep. Tom France, D-Missoula, pointed out that FWP has money specifically for recruitment and retention of hunters and asked if that money could be spent on recruiting hunter education instructors. When Worsech agreed that FWP receives federal money from the Pittman-Robertson fund for recruitment, France said FWP should budget for hunter education instructors.

Worsech proposed delaying any changes to hunter education until he could organize a hunter-education working group. He added that FWP would start charging students for the online course.

“I think we can do this. But right now, we can’t implement it. I don’t have the manpower to do it. I’ll talk to the sponsor about giving us a grace period,” Worsech said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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