Bill Stevens started day two of his hunter education class on a cold, Sunday morning in January at the Savona Rod & Gun Club in Steuben County. He played a video, then reviewed the tenets of what a responsible hunter would do in the field.
“Would they treat every firearm as it’s loaded?” Yes, said the students. “Are you sure?” Yes. “Would they obey game laws?” Yes. “Would they use land without asking permission?” No.
If you want to get your hunting license in New York, you have to take an in-person class like this one. But some other states let you do it all online. It’s a trend hunting teachers in New York are hoping to stave off.
The nation’s oldest hunter education program
Stevens doesn’t have to teach a two-day class; he wants to. He’s a volunteer, like all of New York hunter ed teachers. There are about 2,378 volunteer instructors, including apprentices.
Many of the students are like Kassady Cerny of Ithaca. “I have absolutely no knowledge on the subject whatsoever,” she said.
The state created the hunter ed program in the late 1940s after a lot of World War II veterans started hunting, and getting accidentally shot. The classes have been mandatory for new hunters ever since.
At the moment, instructors design their own classes under state guidelines. Stevens’ class is part field training, part video and part lecture. It also has homework — as of last year, that’s a state requirement. Students must complete homework before coming to class. They can do it on paper or online.
The move to online-only hunter education
Stevens doesn’t like mandatory homework because he has to turn people away if they don’t do it. He also worries the homework change foreshadows a shift to an all-online offering.
“Not fact, but also rumor, is that eventually they’ll get rid of the volunteers and do it online,” he said. “Which is what some of us are very worried about.”
Seventeen states now offer online-only hunting classes, although age and other requirements vary a lot. Every state does still offer a traditional in-person class.
John Organ with the U.S. Geological Survey said online-only classes make training more accessible.
“In many states there’s a backlog of students that want to get trained, and there’s just not enough spaces,” Organ said.
New York, like other states, gets a rush of people wanting to take a hunter training class every fall, a few weeks before deer hunting season, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation. A lot of that is people waiting until the last minute to fulfill their requirements for a hunting license. An online-only option would help alleviate the logjam.
But the DEC said it’s not considering online-only classes.
DEC hunter education officials like Frank Phillips compare hunter training to driver ed: “Would you want to allow someone to take an online driving test and then get their driver’s license without seeing them drive a vehicle? I don’t think it’s any different with hunting.”
However, Brad Heidel, Executive Director of the International Hunter Education Association (IHEA), thinks online-only works just fine. Young people today are busy, he said, and they learn differently.
“Kids these days, they learn not by hands-on, but they learn by interaction with their computers, with their telephones,” said Heidel.
Lack of data
Whatever your philosophy on education, it’s a decision states want to make carefully. Various states are asking Heidel for reliable data on what kind of class works best. The IHEA has asked Matt Dunfee with the Wildlife Management Institute to design a study.
States are getting pressure to change, according to Dunfee.
“State fish and wildlife agencies are being challenged more and more to adopt new technologies and new ways of doing things,” he said. “What hasn’t caught up with those new technologies and new ideas is data to inform those decisions.”
The study should be out by the end of the year.
The calming ritual lesson
Visiting Bill Stevens’ class, it is hard to see how a student would learn some of the lessons through a computer.
Here’s an example. Stevens is portraying a hunter who’s prepping to gut the first deer he or she has ever killed.
“I’m gonna be juiced, man, like every football player, baseball player. I’m gonna be at the goalpost.” (Stevens is dancing on his toes here.) “‘Man, I got a deer! Woo-hoo!’ And the last thing I wanna be doing is handling a very, very sharp knife while I’m all pumped up.”
Have a calming ritual, he told them. Good advice, right? But we all get great advice from teachers. The question is, do we retain it at the right moment?
For now, New York is sticking with in-person hunter training….but you have to do your homework.