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Landers: Hunter training changes draw ire

Thu., Feb. 7, 2013, midnight

At least 44 of Washington’s 860 certified hunter education instructors have dropped out of the program this year, some of them protesting new restrictions on their personal freedom in the classroom.

Sgt. Carl Klein, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife hunter ed coordinator, said 760 instructors have re-registered for 2013 so far. Turnover among instructors normally ranges from 5 to 14 percent, he said, but this year some of the instructors have specified they’re leaving the program because of changes in the program’s policy manual.

Agency officials say stricter guidelines on such things as dealing one-on-one with students and standard firearms allowed in classes are necessary to protect the state from liability.

Passing a hunter education course has been a prerequisite for new hunters buying a state hunting license since 1957. Washington’s program passed 12,200 of the 15,282 students who registered for hunter education courses last year.

The courses run by the volunteers are a critical gateway for new hunters who support a substantial recreation industry.

The core dissent stems from the Richland Rod & Gun Club, including Howard Gardner, 84, who’s chosen to break his 56 consecutive years of teaching hunter education.

Gardner said there’s “a considerable lack of enthusiasm for teaching in compliance with a new policy manual, which essentially is being crammed down our throats.”

Spokane-area hunter education instructors contacted by The Spokesman-Review had concerns about some of the changes but not to the level of quitting.

Klein said the changes were made with feedback from the Hunter Education Advisory Committee. He said the agency will continue to revise them as issues arise.

In 2010 the Richland club boasted a hunter ed team-teaching group of 17 certified instructors and 25 registered volunteers, who were supported by four private organizations and two conservation groups. After the more restrictive policy manual was enacted, 10 of those instructors have resigned and the private support has diminished.

“The registered volunteers feel exposed and decline to participate,” the club said in a letter to the agency.

The club conducted 10 hunter training courses a season until three years ago, when the state decertified one of its lead instructors after parents complained about his gruff demeanor and a case of grabbing a student in a gun-training situation.

So far, the Richland club has scheduled no classes for 2013. Gardner said another Tri-Cities club is dropping out, too.

The Kittitas County Field & Stream Club’s five instructors have resigned, ending the club’s 54-year-old hunter ed program. They say they’re particularly opposed to restrictions on using personal firearms in their courses and the policy that a student does not have to prove shooting proficiency at the live-fire range.

Klein said students in the basic class “have to go through the process of live fire at a range at the conclusion of their classes to show they can handle the gun – and the instructor can fail them if they don’t – but live fire has never been a mandatory component of hunter education.”

The only change, he said, is that it’s spelled out in the new policy manual. Many hunter ed instructors say they’d prefer that any updates would have required live firing.

Last year, the state adopted a policy that all firearms used in classroom situations must be disabled from firing. About the same time, an Idaho hunter education instructor made news by accidentally discharging a firearm in a class – as if to emphasize the point.

To facilitate that rule, WDFW spent $240,000 to purchase 200 classroom sets of Mossberg firearms that are just like real firearms in every way except they are painted orange and their firing pins have been disabled.

Or at least they are supposed to be disabled.

Testing revealed that some of the “dummy” guns could fire a cartridge if live ammunition was chambered, Klein confirmed. Mossberg has replaced the “functioning” guns that are supposed to be inert.

Some hunter education instructors complained that students would not take the orange guns seriously, but if anything, the fact that some of them actually fired should be considered proof that ALL guns must be handled as though they’re loaded, Klein said.

“Nowadays, guns come in all colors, including pink,” he said. “And many toy guns look real. Muzzle control is necessary with all of them.”

The other way to look at the more rigid policies for hunter ed is that most of the state’s instructors are accepting them.

“There’s an exception for live fire and I don’t like it, but I can live with it,” said Paul Weekley, chief instructor for the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council based in Spokane. He noted other issues, too, but qualified his concerns.

“My goal is to give each student the training he or she would need before I’d be comfortable taking them hunting and having them walk behind me with a firearm,” he said.

To be continued.

Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email

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