I spent a good portion of the morning of my 29th birthday on my back inching beneath a fence while a preteen boy stood above me struggling to keep the muzzles of two shotguns pointed toward heaven.
That was the culmination of a weeklong hunter education class. I was the oldest student in the class by roughly 10 years and one of the few students not accompanied by a parent or guardian.
See, I’ve never hunted before. Hardly shot a gun, in fact. Despite growing up in North Idaho, I was not exposed to either. My mother and father did not do it nor did my extended family.
And so, why would I?
That’s an increasingly common story in America and in Washington. As more people move to urban areas, as development continues to encroach upon traditional hunting lands, as our culture selects inside pursuits over outside adventures, people my age aren’t hunting.
Nostalgia aside, this is a big deal. Most state wildlife agencies are organized around hunting and angling. A significant portion of the funding for these agencies comes from the fees hunters and anglers pay.
For instance, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, gets one-third of its budget from license fees. Over the past decade, there has been an 11 percent drop in state hunting license holders. Even more worrisome, youth hunting participation is down 22 percent. During that same decade, the state’s population grew 16 percent.
Only 5 percent of Americans 16 years and older hunt, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study published in 2017. Fifty years ago, that number was 10 percent.
In other less tangible ways, the decline in hunting has furthered corrosive stereotypes. Urban vs. rural. Liberals vs. conservatives.
My view of hunters, informed by little to no experience, is a caricature. Testosterone-filled men gunning down animals for the pure pleasure of the kill. Many my age with similar life backgrounds have similar views.
The ignorance cuts both ways.
During the weeklong class, held in a run-down classroom behind a Baptist Church in the Spokane Valley, I overheard one small child ask his father, “What is a liberal?”
“A liberal is someone who wants to take our guns,” the man said without hesitation.
My stereotypes were confirmed, at least initially, on the first day of class. The parking lot was full of trucks. The room was full of mostly men. Camouflage abounded and my long hair and sandals drew skeptical glances.
But once examined, like any stereotype, the hard outlines of certainty started to melt.
The weeklong class was focused primarily on gun safety, and it focused on the kind of guns that don’t get much press attention – rifles and shotguns.
The two instructors, Shawn Oeser and Sean Luby, were adamant, and at times fierce about the subject. Several times Oeser yelled at students who were unintentionally muzzling classmates or instructors. Oeser said they failed one student during the field course section of the class.
“During the fence crossing he picked up his firearm from the ground and muzzled not only the instructor but a couple people from the group,” he said.
The student, one of the youngest in the group, will have to take the class again.
“We’re not here to teach you to hunt,” Oeser said on the first day of class. “That’s what your Mom, Dad and relatives are for.”
“Like I made very clear in the class last week, every accidental shooting can be prevented,” Oeser said.
Oeser started teaching hunter education classes four years ago. It’s a volunteer position. Prior to that, he was a school teacher.
“I just decided I wanted to be teaching still,” he said. “And I knew about the hunter education program and I like to hunt and I don’t have any kids to hand it down to.”
In addition to gun safety, we learned about conservation, game management and threats facing wildlife – issues and discussions that sounded like something I might have learned at Gonzaga University.
“Every time I teach it, I learn something different,” said Luby, the second instructor.
During the course, Oeser reminded the students – but mostly the parents – that the license fees and taxes they pay on ammunition support their passion.
“Remember, all the money we spend on (hunting) goes to conservation,” he said.
The curriculum is developed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the volunteer instructors must complete a teaching course.
“That’s one of the overarching goals of hunter education. To instill that conservation ethic as well as being good citizens and recognizing their stewardship roles as they become adults and decision makers,” said Mike Whorton, WDFW’s Region One hunter education coordinator. “We’re part of the system ecologically. So many kids now in this urbanized society don’t realize that.”
Many of the parents, who are avid hunters, sat in on the class with their children. Some said they learned new things about gun safety and conservation.
Although the class was long, 6 to 9 p.m. for a week, Gavin Sorenson, 17, said he enjoyed it.
“I thought at first it was going to be boring, but it was interesting,” he said. “I enjoyed it a lot.”
Jeremy White was there with his two children, Rylan Stemm, 12, and Caden Gail, 12. White said they’re avid hunters and spend the summer scouting where they’ll hunt in the fall. While the kids usually accompany White, now that they’ve passed hunter education things will be a little different.
“This is the first time they will be able to pull the trigger,” he said.
The class had its dull moments for me. The stuffy room felt better suited for taking a nap than for learning. Later, I learned most people my age take the online course because it allows them to work at their own pace.
But overall it was a worthwhile experience. My familiarity and confidence with guns increased and the Byzantine network of hunting rules and regulations started to make sense.
And I found two hunting mentors.
On the final day of class the two instructors, Oeser and Luby, invited me elk hunting this fall.
But the best birthday present of all? My fake hunting partner, the one standing above me with two fake shotguns, didn’t muzzle me.
We both passed.
Over the coming months, I will be writing about my experiences learning to hunt.
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