FWP no longer requires in-person hunter ed classes; volunteer instructors concerned

Up until last year, the mandatory course for youth hunters included a few evening classes, a field day and a final exam. For about the past five years, adults born after 1985 could take their classes online but were still required to attend the field day.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has decided hunter’s education can be all online. But they didn’t tell instructors what was coming.

On April 9, Wayde Cooperider, FWP Outdoor Skills and Safety supervisor, sent an email to all Montana bowhunter and hunter education instructors, telling them the agency would offer everyone, including youth, the opportunity to take hunters education online with no requirement to attend an in-person field day.

This is in the interest of customer service, the email said.

“Students will have a choice, with some opting to learn online only, and others taking advantage of the in-person courses offered by our certified volunteer instructors,” Cooperider wrote.

The announcement didn’t go over too well with some of the more than 1,000 volunteer instructors across the state, many of whom have taught the course for decades.

“As the former state chairman of National Bowhunters Education Foundation, I can tell you any time the human factor is removed it isn’t good,” said Tim Roberts, Traditional Bowhunters of Montana president.

Up until last year, the mandatory course for youth hunters included a few evening classes, a field day and a final exam. For about the past five years, adults born after 1985 could take their classes online but were still required to attend the field day.

During field days, instructors teach hunters how to handle their rifles while climbing fences and how to gauge their shots to ensure an ethical kill. Instructors take their responsibilities seriously, putting in a lot of time and energy into honing their teaching.

In Bozeman, veteran instructor Kurt Bushnell would often select one young student – usually a kid from a single-parent household or similar challenging situation – to go with him on a hunt.

In the Bitterroot Valley, instructor Everett Headley said he’s really enjoyed working with young hunters for the past eight years and wants to continue.

“I still remember the guy who taught me 30 years ago and his stories and things that I thought about when I was out in the woods that he taught me. So I want to be a part of somebody else’s hunting journey that way,” Headley said. “Every once in a while a kid will run up to me in Walmart or something and they’ll tell me about their first deer. I would hate to miss out on something like that.”

FWP spokesman Greg Lemon said instructors would still be allowed to teach if they want – courses just won’t be mandatory so it’s hard to know how many students will attend. Glasgow hunting instructor Andrew McKean said that’s caused a number of instructors to consider quitting.

“I don’t think I’ll quit,” McKean said. “I’m disappointed with the department. But on the other hand, the traditional way of delivering hunter education in a classroom setting that can be hard to schedule, especially with busy lives, has kind of been an impediment to putting more hunters in the field.”

There’s no real cost savings by going online. The program receives federal Pittman-Robertson money, and with volunteer instructors, it costs about $160,000 a year. But there is a time savings – two instructors can optimally teach about 20 students, so classes fill up quickly, especially with more adults attending, Headley said.

“My classes tend to book up. While we’d never turn a kid away, it’s really hard to set a class size that’s big enough to accommodate everybody,” Headley said. “I like what we do and how we do it. I don’t anticipate that changing. I think there’s still going to be a lot of interest in in-person classes.”

The decision to put everything online was instigated by the past year of COVID-19 shutdowns. FWP allowed people to take the hunter education course online in 2020 when social distancing and other restrictions closed the classes.

Lemon said FWP director Hank Worsech recently decided to make that change permanent. More than 16,000 Montanans took the online courses last year with adult bowhunter education students accounting for the biggest increase. That’s nearly double the number of students in a normal year.

McKean said instructors understood the need for remote training during the pandemic, but they expected a return to normal at some point. That was also the case for FWP employees McKean has talked to.

“The instructors were in agreement on this that it was a one-time thing to get through COVID, and when the COVID restrictions eased, that we’d get back into the classroom. In fact, we’d had some communications with the department about what the return to in-class instruction would look like,” McKean said.

Montana isn’t the only state moving to more of an online course. Idaho developed the first online course in 2002, and since then, more states have added online options. Massachusetts is now the only state not offering online courses.

The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, which lobbies Congress and state legislatures on hunting and fishing issues, is pushing online certification to get more hunters into the field. But is the path of least resistance a wise thing in the case of hunting?

Hunter education began in the 1950s and was engrained in several states 20 years later.

So in almost every state, the recent transition to online courses has been controversial among seasoned hunters. People question how effective online gun and hunting safety courses can be.

Different states have developed different requirements. Oregon and Idaho have everything online. Last year, Wisconsin okayed the online course for youth hunters but still requires them to attend an in-person field day.

McKean said he’d like the field day to remain mandatory, particularly for bowhunters. Some instructors said the field days allowed them to correct some poor adult gun handling.

For years, Montana’s hunter ed program has featured “Fair Chase,” a book written by one of the state’s most influential biologists, Jim Posewitz. The book highlights the ethics of hunting, and instructors are worried it will fall by the wayside. McKean also wants FWP develop videos for the course that are more customized to Montana hunters.

Lemon said that because of the high interest in the online course, the agency wouldn’t make the field day mandatory but would work with instructors to make it more of a “value-added prospect.” The agency is also working on video content that will feature landowners talking about what they expect if hunters access their land, Lemon said.

McKean said FWP wardens and biologists might miss out on opportunities to connect with impressionable sportsmen.

“Hunter ed was a way for the department to meet and engage with a new generation of sportsmen. I worry about the integrity of that relationship when we don’t have that ability to meet hunters even before they’re in the field. It breaks the bond between the department and its customers,” McKean said.

“My complaint with this (decision) was it was so abrupt, and it doesn’t involve instructors in the discussion at all. It feels almost belligerent, like this is how it’s going to be and there’s no way to influence the outcome.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.