Hunter safety instructors rebel against short classes

Harrisburg — Efforts to make hunter safety education classes easier for students to fit into their schedules are running into resistance.

Some instructors across the state believe the course – now down to six hours, compared to 12 at one time – are too short in that they don’t allow time for students to actually do any shooting. That’s a “safety issue,” said one instructor.

“You wouldn’t let your kids go out and drive having only taken a written test,” Greg Lucas, a state representative from Crawford County and a hunter ed instructor with the Lake Edinboro Sportsmen’s Association, told Pennsylvania game commissioners at their June meeting. “It’s the same with hunter education.”

He said clubs like his would prefer having the option to make a longer class mandatory for students.

Proponents of the shorter class say it fits the reality of today, and the coming reality of tomorrow, though.

In the immediate term, a shorter class better suits students – kids especially – and makes education less of a barrier to joining the hunting ranks, said Commissioner Ralph Martone, of Lawrence County, a former school teacher and a hunter education instructor for more than 20 years.

In the long term, the shorter class better fits the shrinking volunteer instructor force.

At one time, the Game Commission had more than 3,800 volunteer hunter education instructors.

“We were pushing 4,000, though we never quite got there,” said Joe Neville, director of the agency’s Bureau of Information and Education.

That’s dropped by more than a third, to about 2,400 today, however. And many of those are admittedly “long in the tooth,” said commission President Bob Schlemmer, of Westmoreland County.

That’s a limiting factor already that only figures to get worse, said Executive Director Carl Roe.

The commission was previously getting 2,000 to 3,000 more requests for spots in a class than it could accommodate, just because the shortage of instructors limited how many 10- or 12-hour classes it could offer, he said.

“We weren’t meeting the demand,” he said.

Newer, younger volunteers aren’t stepping up to replace retiring instructors as they go away, he added.

“I think our problem is attracting younger instructors and finding younger guys to help out,” said Commissioner Brian Hoover of Delaware County, a hunter ed instructor for more than 20 years.

Unless that changes, and there’s been no indication now that it will, the shortage of classes was going to become even more severe in the next five to 10 years, Roe said. That was one reason the commission decided to shorten the class, he said.

“This makes it much more flexible for clubs to meet that demand and offer multiple classes,” said Martone. “Before they might have held one class a year. Now they might do two, one in spring and another in fall.”

He’s aware of one club that’s decided to hold a second class in the fall because it can do so on one Sunday, when it won’t keep instructors themselves out of the woods, he added.

Clubs can still offer students the opportunity to shoot, he said. And many have, he said, giving students the option to stick around at the conclusion of the class or to return another day to shoot.

They just can’t require students to do more than the six hours, Neville said.

Still, more changes could be coming.

There are differences of opinion among board members about what clubs can require students to do, or what they should be required to teach, said Commissioner Jay Delaney, of Luzerne County. Discussions on those issues will be held in the coming months, he added.

One option might be to offer a basic, “level 1” six-hour course that would be enough to give a first-timer the chance to hunt, while giving clubs the option to offer a “level 2-” or “level 3-type” safety course that would include live fire, trap setting, and other hands-on activities, said Commissioner Dave Putnam, of Centre County.

Neville suggested that commission staff is also looking at ways to continue tweaking the hunter safety program.

“We’re looking at various options down the road. Nothing near term. But for down the road,” he said.

Lucas said he’s interested in seeing what the commission might come up with. If there are students who only want to do a shorter class, that’s fine, he said. But if there are others who want more – and the class at his club always has a waiting list, even at 12 hours, he said – there should be an option for them, too.

“I understand the reasoning behind the new HTE course. I get it,” Lucas said. “But we want to go above and beyond.”

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