The large-caliber hole punched in the Tri-Cities hunter education program this season is a shot to the comfort zone of the state’s volunteer instructors.
Clare Cranston, 79, an instructor for 46 years, has been decertified by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department for his drill-sergeant approach to teaching firearms safety.
Several more on his team of 14 certified Tri-Cities instructors subsequently pulled out of the program.
Collateral damage includes the mild-mannered Howard Gardner, a consummate hunter and perhaps the state’s preeminent hunter ed instructor.
Gardner, 81, co-founded the Tri-Cities program in 1957 – the year Washington enacted its requirement for new hunters to pass a hunter safety class before they can buy a hunting license.
Gardner has taught hunter education to about 250 students annually for 54 consecutive years with much praise and no complaints on his performance.
But when Fish and Wildlife officials said his entire team of instructors had to attend a sensitivity class in order to retain their certifications, the Lou Gehrig of hunter education ended his streak.
“It would have been an admission of guilt, and I didn’t do anything wrong,” said Gardner, a retired Hanford engineer.
Through 2009, instructors sponsored by the Richland Rod & Gun Club had received five written complaints over 53 years.
But last March, the Fish and Wildlife Department enforcement division, which manages the hunter ed program, received three complaints from a single class. That was unprecedented, said Lt. Eric Anderson, program manager.
Here’s a summary of the three complaints:
— A woman wrote that Cranston “was completely hostile” to all students in the class.
Interviewed Tuesday, a year later, she said she didn’t want to see anyone maligned, “but it’s sad,” she added: “These volunteers provide a great service, but no one has a right to be mean to kids. If he’s too old, maybe it’s time for him to go.”
— A mother wrote a rambling three-page criticism of Cranston and other instructors for being rude and not giving her three daughters – ages 8, 9 and 10 – the attention they deserved. She implied the instructors set up the girls to flunk the class.
She asked the department to give her kids another field gun-handling exam under the supervision of a different group of instructors. The request was granted – and the girls were failed, again.
“They were simply too young and not yet physically ready to safely handle firearms,” Gardner said.
—A father got the department’s attention by complaining that Cranston grabbed his son as he pointed the muzzle of an unloaded gun toward other students.
The father charged, and Cranston admits that he grabbed the 9-year-old and said, “Do you know what you just did?” so sternly that the boy cried.
After father confronted instructors about the incident, Cranston stood before the class and said he was sorry if people were offended by his insistence on firearms safety – but that’s the way it was going to be. Period.
“This was after we told the students that every gun is to be treated as though it’s loaded and they would fail if they ever pointed a gun at someone,” Gardner said.
“So it’s not clear whether the boy cried because Clare was gruff, or because he thought he’d failed the class.
“Either way, we stand behind our conviction that muzzle control is one of the most important rules we teach.”
But the Fish and Wildlife Department also stands behind its conviction that these rules should be taught in a positive manner.
After an investigation, the department determined the combined complaints had merit.
The instructors contend the department violated its own policy by not giving them the chance to formally respond to the complaints.
The department responded by saying everything would be OK if Cranston apologized to the father and boy and the entire team of instructors participated in a positive-methods training clinic.
Cranston refused. Instead, he spent and sportsman groups spent $6,000 each in attorney fees to fight for his certification and his pride. That’s on top of the 400-600 hours and up to $1,000 a year he spends of his own money in the hunter ed program.
But the state dismissed his appeal before it could be presented.
It’s no secret that Cranston had been a thorn in the side of the previous hunter ed program administrator. “The department has had a substandard program for most of its existence,” he said.
Anderson said the department didn’t intend to decertify any instructors, “but while they’re volunteers, they’re also representatives of the department.
“Throughout the case, the department has sought remedies to try to keep the instructors on,” he said. “The traditional classes and instructors are the backbone of the program. But there are changes in the landscape of teaching. Hunting has a wider diversity of folks taking the class.
“What we tried to do was give them the best tools to be effective teachers and avoid liability.”
Cranston and Gardner feel violated. They say the agency is avoiding two more pressing issues:
— Increased use of online training, which avoids problems with gruff instructors and de-emphasizes gun handling.
— Parents enrolling kids who are too young.
“We tell parents right off that they’re setting up their kids for failure when they enroll them at 8 or 9,” Cranston said. “I’m not teaching a feel-good class when the issue is life-and-death.”