Saturday, February 28, 2009

Hunter Education - Is it Sufficient?

Last week I wrote a post about The Boy successfully completing his hunter safety certificate and there were a few comments that invited some interesting discussion. One reader wrote,

…“As a father of two young boys, I, too, look forward to the time when they can get their hunter's safety certificate. However, I do think we have a serious problem with hunter education today. I think it needs to be an ongoing and more rigorous process. Think about it: What does it say about our hunter education system when an 8- or 9-year old child can score 90 percent on a hunter education test? What are they really learning? What will they remember when they're 14 or 18? Think about the message that sends to the nonhunting public when almost any child can earn a hunting certificate before they're done with 4th grade. It's ludicrous"...

That comment invited the following response,

…“The fact that The Boy passed with 90% isn't because the test was easy, it was because he, his father and I took a vested interest in him respecting the reason for the test, the process of studying for the test and taking the test… He passed with 90% because he put hours of his time into it…

There are two ways for the new hunter to learn, those who 1) study the guide and continue to use [it] as a resource and 2) have an incredible mentor to teachthem in the field. Unfortunately, you can't really do #2 without number #1. Forgive me if I'm on a soapbox, but I don't want anyone, for one minute, to think any 9 year old could pass that test with 90%. The Boy EARNED that score."

This healthy exchange got me wondering if there was any data to back up either of these reader’s comments. I’ve heard and read over the years that hunting – compared to other sports – is one of the safest outdoor activities.

And in fact, according to The International Hunter Education Association, 2,369 out of every 100,000 football players were injured or killed in 2001 compared to only six (6) per 100,000 hunters in all of North America. Even swimming (319), golf (173), soccer (1,262), and basketball (2,326) all experienced many more injuries and fatalities than hunting.

According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, “Firearms-related accidents have declined sharply even as gun ownership in America is rising. More than half of all households now own firearms, yet accidental fatalities are at an all-time low--down 60 percent over the last 20 years.”

So hunting clearly remains a safe sport.

But what about age and hunting accidents? Interestingly national incident reports filed with the International Hunter Education Association show that the average age of the shooter involved in an incident in 2007 was 37.9 years old.

Breaking down the numbers a little further shows that youth aged 13 and younger had 15 incidents, while older hunters (14-68) averaged 34 incidents per ten-year age bracket. Only once you crossed over to seniors older than 70 years did the figure drop to six incidents.

Although we don’t know the age distribution of hunters in US, these stats clearly show that youth is not an outlier in terms of the number of accidents. Even if we assume that the youngest and oldest categories have fewer hunters and adjust the accident rates by percentage accordingly, there is still no significant difference between young, prime, and older age for hunting accidents.

It is also important to remember that not all hunting accidents are due to the shooter’s mistake. Victims moving into the line of fire accounted for 6% of hunting accidents in 2007.

Back to the original reader’s comment for a moment. He believes there should be a “system where hunters have to retake the exam every five years or so -- and the test could get more difficult accordingly to require some ongoing education. The test for adults should be different than the one a 9-year-old can pass. The safety scenarios and exam questions should be more complex and demanding as should questions about wildlife biology, conservation, the philosophy of hunting, heritage, etc.”

In my professional life we deal with licensure for health care professionals and there is a similar debate about whether there should be a requirement for continued competency, which is what this reader is suggesting. The question I have, however, is seeing that hunting is already one of the safest recreational activities and knowing that the data does not show any one age bracket has statistically higher hunting accidents, would continued hunter education testing achieve the goal of safer hunters?

While re-testing hunters every five years as the reader suggests may incrementally improve the number of hunting accidents, I believe that it would have a larger detrimental effect on hunter recruitment. Is this worth a small, if any, reduction in the number of injuries or fatalities? Can we ever expect to totally eliminate the risks associated with hunting?

While I do think that the current hunter education programs need a healthy update (The Boy saw the same videos that I watched in the 70’s), the fundamental curricula appears to be sound. I would hate to sacrifice the involvement of new ranks of hunters for additional safety protocols that would have limited, if any effect.

What do you think about the state of hunter safety and education?


NorCal Cazadora said...

I think the boy in Washington who mistook a bent-over hiker (wearing a blue jacket) for a bear and killed her probably would've benefitted from re-testing. He was 9 when he passed the test, 14 when he killed that woman. Clearly he forgot the part about "identify your target before you shoot."

But then again, I don't know anything about that boy. If he hunted with family members who consistently mentored him, he probably wouldn't have forgotten that little rule. Perhaps he just hunted with his teenage brother all the time, and they didn't talk about safety.

I'll send you the data I have on age. It doesn't break down in a way consistent with your data (can't get clean 10-year brackets), but a rough look at it suggests that the kids might have a higher accident rate because the numbers of child hunters are very low. That wouldn't surprise me, because it has parallels (e.g., with cars, where experience tends to lower accident rates, right up until old age starts raising that rate again).

The problem is that every time government tightens down, it infringes on those who are already diligent about their responsibilities (most of us) to try to minimize the impact of idiots (a minority that gets a lot of publicity), and you can never eliminate the idiots - at least not in a free and democratic society.

And your overarching point is right: Adults screw up too, and anecdotally, adults cause most of the hunting accidents that I read about every year.

Terry Scoville said...

I am in agreement with you Jon as far as the continuing education and possible declines in number of future hunters. I feel that if anyone participates for an extended lenght of time in one endeavor that the odds will eventually moves in a negative way. Law of averages does exist.
I think the best action is to continue the conversation of safety with your friends (hunters and non hunters)throughout the year as well as during hunting season. It doesn't hurt either to audit a hunters ed course with a friend.

Anonymous said...

Jon - I am a non-hunter, but, my son and son-in-law and my grandson are all avid hunters. So this blog post really interested me. Thanks for the research and data and for taking a stance with your position. I will be very interested to see some of our fellow bloggers comments.

Live to Hunt.... said...

Hey NorCal, I would be interested in your data. My methodology was to take the raw IHEA 2007 data for accidents nationally and breakdown the incidents by age bracket for every ten years beginning with 0-13 years old (then 14-24, 25-35, 36-46, etc.). The accident rate for each ten year interval was 15, 39, 33, 39, 36, 24, and 6 for the 69+ age range.

Interestingly only two of the accidents for 13 year olds or younger involved both the shooter and victim being young. That would make sense that most youth are hunting with adults - but it also means that hunting with an adult doesn't automatically mean kids are safer.

Blessed said...

I don't think re-testing hunter's every 5 years would be a profitable venture. The hunter's education test is a starting point and your knowledge and experience should grow from there.

I think of it like the drivers license test. I took one when I was 16 and haven't had to re-take it every five years... but I'm a better driver now than I was 17 years ago when I took the test.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Blessed, you don't have to re-test? We do in California, though they'll usually give you at least one extension if you've had a good driving record.

LTH, I sent you that data right after I made that comment. Holler if you didn't see it.

Anonymous said...

I think, as an entire group, hunters are very vigilant about safety. Most kids are taught to be careful and handle weapons properly. Like a lot of things the provisions for retesting and such are trying to cure stupid, and you can't do that. There are always people who will be idiots and do dumb things, and all the recertification in the world won't stop that. Why penalize the people who are responsible trying to cure something that can't be cured?

It's the same theory behind stopping gun crimes by making guns illegal. It's attacking the wrong part of the problem.

Swamp Thing said...

More education is never a bad thing, and hunting is no exception. There's got to be a way to do it painlessly - whether it's a mandatory 15-minute safety talk before shooting time on Junior Waterfowl Day or the extra safety class many of us have to take to get priviledges to hunt on military bases...there are ways to sneak in more education without turning into a mandatory, periodic system. Some hunters would skirt by without ever having to deal with any of it, but that's how it goes. You can never get them all!

sportingdays said...

This is a good discussion, but I want to stand by my original post. As a hunting community in 21st century America, we suffer when formal hunter education ends at 8-, 9-, 10-, 11-, 12-, etc. years of age. Some more thoughts:

** The fact that there are 9-year-old California kids such as The Boy cramming for their hunter safety certificate warms my heart. It really does. Better, still, that there are loving and nurturing parents behind him who support him and will continue to mentor him in the field into adulthood. My intention was not to belittle The Boy’s accomplishment but rather to make the case that we would all be better served if we had some kind of ongoing hunter education beyond an initial exam that a child can pass. I also appreciate that the folks who teach these classes are volunteers and I don’t want to diminish in any way their significant contributions.

In The Boy’s case, the current hunter education system in California may work just fine. In fact, it was built to serve this traditional family model that today, perhaps, is the exception rather than the rule. There are plenty of kids out there from single-family homes who may not have a hunting parent or adult family friend to mentor him/her afield into adolescence and beyond. What about kids from immigrant families who don’t come from a hunting tradition or a different hunting tradition? Do we really want formal hunter education to end in 4th, 5th, 6th grade, high school even, in these cases? Most of our population lives in urban areas with completely different views about guns, food and hunting. Does a 10-year-old kid have the intellectual ability or wherewithal to explain to his/her friends back at school why they hunt, why they’re taking hunter safety, what good hunters contribute to the environment, etc.? Are these our ambassadors to the nonhunting public – those whose formal hunting education ends at 11-years old? What about new hunters who take up hunting as adults? Wouldn’t they benefit or be better served with some ongoing education or a more rigorous or interesting process?

** With all due respect to the fine host of this blog, I think the safety discussion here – looked at from the perspective of accidents afield – misses the point. Safety in the field should be THE MINIMUM standard and not the end goal. I remember my own hunter’s safety class from decades ago and there were lots of other important and interesting topics covered as well, including wildlife biology, conservation, archery vs. firearms, ethics, fish and game laws, the role of wardens. Being a hunter in 21st century America is complicated. Laws change all the time. The ethical choices we face today are complex and different from those of even 10 years ago. I think we would all benefit by revisiting some of those issues beyond the intellectual capabilities the average child can bring to the table.

** My original post suggested that we might benefit from repeated testing or licensing. This may be too extreme but perhaps, as other commenters have stated, we can have some process of ongoing education. Let’s say that, in order to obtain a permit to hunt on federal or state wildlife refuges, hunters must attend a yearly, off-season orientation at the refuges. It would be a chance to reconnect with the wildlife officers, get updates on any new laws and regulations, reinforce the values of conservation, issues facing hunters in the state, the benefits of eating wild game, etc. It doesn’t even have to be drudgery. It could even be fun.

In the end, I think the host of this blog and I are in agreement. The current hunter education process, as it’s practiced in California at least, is an anachronism and would benefit from an update.

SimplyOutdoors said...

I'm a firm believer that hunter education has to come, first and foremost, from the hunting mentor or parent.

I think the initial hunter's safety program is sufficient enough. I do think, however, that parents or guardians should be attending these hunter's safety courses with their kids. I think that just makes sense to have some sort of mentoring adult present when they initially take hunter's safety.

After that, though, I think it would be a mistake to require "re-testing". Usually, a binding law such as that only punishes the majority of hunters who are very thorough with safety already, and have no need to attend a course again, or have to pass a test.

An interesting topic, though, Jon. It certainly got everyone to thinking.

LC said...

Jon, thoughtful post. Encouraging a dialogue on these issues is always a good idea. On another note, just saw you listed on the Criminal Justice Degrees Guide. Good on ya!

EcoRover said...

Hunter Ed, at least here in Montana, is just fine.

Hunter Ed, however, is necessary but not sufficient to become a hunter.

Young hunters also need careful instruction in nature's ways, woods skills, and practical safety & ethics afield.

EcoRover said...

Oh yeah, just my 2 cents, but no 9-year old I ever saw (after a lifetime as a scout leader) should be hunting.

Live to Hunt.... said...

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. This subject clearly has spurred people to look at the issue through many lenses.

Sporting - I greatly appreciated you granting me permission to use your coments to reflect on this subject in this post. I also am grateful that you took the time to clearly and thoroughly outline your perspective in the comments. At the end of the day, I too think that we fundamentally agree on the issues.

LC - thanks for letting me know about my blog being voted (along with yours - Fat of the Land) as one of the top 50 blogs for gun enthusiasts!

Eco - I really like your summary statement that hunter ed is just the beginning to a young person becoming a hunter. I would respectfully disagree about the 9-year old hunting however. 31 years ago I was that 9 year old. Now having been out target shooting with The Boy I am confident that he is emotionally mature to be a safe gunner. I would absolutely concur that it is highly variable based on the individual youth and their emtional intelligence and common sense abilities.

Rebecca K. O'Connor said...

God, I love gun hunters. This topic has so much flame potential and yet everyone here is very articulately and respectfully making their point, giving all who read a chance to forumlate their own opinions instead of focusing on defending their point. Falconers aren't so good at this...

I have to admit, it does disturb me that I've had a hunting license renewed annually for 15 years, but have never shot a gun in that time period. And yet, I would be allowed out in the field with the lot of you unsupervised. Shouldn't there be a random pop quiz or something now and then when you go to buy your license?

To compare it to a driver's license doesn't seem fair. We all drive every day, some of us for hours with the daily possibility of a ticket if we don't learn and remember the rules.

The Downeast Duck Hunter said...

I'm going to lean on Sportingdays on this one for he raised a great point, "This may be too extreme but perhaps, as other commenters have stated, we can have some process of ongoing education". However, wouldn't it make sense for more volunteer efforts to enhance safety.

For instance, if there were a "hunter's breakfast" before opening day and before people got ready to eat, a quick reminder of the safety essentials could be shared. I do give my hunters (I live in a very rural part of Maine) some quick reminders before the season starts, no different than I tell my leaving seniors to be careful on graduation weekend.

We all could take a little more responsive role in promoting safety, maybe the means to this could be a think tank amongst us all to figure out the best way to achieve a desired result.

There is little argument about needing more safety, one accidental death is one too many, but a dialogue like this is essential to making sure we all are doing more to keep ourselves and others safe.


Seth said...

I think that as long as the test is constructed at an adult level, then the 9 year old that passes the test will need to be extraordinarily bright or have had very close mentoring/education from a family member or guide. When I took the test at age 9 (in California,33 now), there were many adults that failed the test, and the 15 year old son of a friend of our family failed that day as well. I passed, and hunted regularly for the next 15 years. But now that I went away to grad school, I've hunted only a handful of times in the last 8 years. Although I feel like everything is instinct and will come back to me next time I'm in the field, I truly do wonder it that is the case. Perhaps having a system that requires retesting after a period of inactivity might make sense. I don't know how they would document the last time you went hunting. I guess they could see when the last time you renewed your license or purchased an upland stamp or something, but I don't think they keep personal records when you do so. But that would be a way of ensuring that experienced, regular hunters are not hassled with re-taking the test, but infrequent hunters who may be more at risk would be required to re-take the test.

Anonymous said...

To All:

One point that must be stressed in using statistics is you can make them say many things. Asking the right question is important in getting the right answers. As the president of the International Hunter Education Association (IHEA) and Co-Director of the National Academy for Hunting Incident Investigation I can attest to what hunters are doing when they are involved in hunting incidents (accidents). The one thing I want all of you to note is this....

The safest age group of hunters in North America is age 16 and under...WHEN ACCOMPANIED BY AN ADULT. Also, the most unsafe age group is age 16 and under....WHEN NOT ACCOMPANIED BY AN ADULT. Any insurance company will tell you this is a no-brainer. Those individuals with the least amount of experience and maturity will always be the highest risk group. Can you imagine how many fewer traffic accidents there would be if parents had to be beside their children when they were driving?

So, hunting is safe and getting safer. Will hunter education completely eliminate hunting incidents? No. Anytime humans are involved there is propensity for mistakes. Driver Education certainly didn't eliminate traffic accidents. Remember, Safe Hunting IS NO Accident!


Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, I forgot one important point to make as well....

I started hunting at age 7 based on my parents observations and judgement about my maturity. I began hunting alone at age 10. By the same token, my brother didn't start hunting until age 10, again based on my parents decisions. To say that a 9 year old isn't capable of being a safe hunter (depending on the individual) is simply an ignorant statement, one founded in emotion rather than fact. As a game warden of 20 years I've seen plenty of 30 plus year olds that should not be hunting and plenty of 9 and 10 year olds that would do just fine.

Thomas Venney said...

Bow hunting is sometimes seen joined of those "manly" sports, but there is a small contingent of ladies that play bow hunting and take the sport to new levels. With bow hunting, people are receiving in contact with the control of the hunt and are learning all sorts of new things about going in tune with on their own and using their own individual bodily power to get in touch with the hunting aspect.