'An especially dedicated bunch'
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- So just who are the people who teach West Virginians how to hunt safely, and why would they drive around the world to do it?
"They're volunteers, and they come from all walks of life," said Lt. Tim Coleman, hunter safety education coordinator for the state Division of Natural Resources. "They're hunters who want to be involved in their sport, and to preserve that sport for future generations."
And they appear to want it pretty badly. Last year, West Virginia's cadre of 250 unpaid teachers dedicated a total of 7,418 hours and drove 28,978 miles - the equivalent of 11/6 times around the Earth - to certify 7,600 new hunters for first-time license purchases.
Since 1989, first-time hunting-license buyers born after Jan. 1, 1975 have been required to take and pass a state-certified hunter safety education course. The 10-hour course covers basic information about firearms and how to load, unload and carry them safely; how to identify wildlife and where to shoot them to get the quickest, most humane kills; field-dressing of game; tree-stand safety; basic survival; ethics; conservation; and wildlife management.
"That's a lot of information to pack into 10 hours," said Glenn Jones, president of the West Virginia Hunter Education Association. "Our volunteers do it to make the woods a safer place to be, and also to make sure people are informed about what they should be doing."
Before hunter education was mandatory, Natural Resources Police officers taught the courses, usually to middle- and high-school students.
Demand for classes skyrocketed once they became compulsory. To meet the demand, DNR officials recruited civilian volunteers and trained them to teach the material. Coleman called West Virginia's instructors "an especially dedicated bunch."
"When we started the program in 1969, I took a course in volunteer management, and the teacher said the average hunter-ed instructor doesn't last more than five years," he added. "Well, I have 15 to 20 of those original instructors who are coming up on 25 years of service, and they're still going strong.
"They do this because of their love for hunting, and they get nothing out of it but satisfaction. I'm very proud of them, and I'm comfortable with them out there doing the teaching because I know they're doing it right."
To become certified, volunteers must take and pass the basic 10-hour course, pass a background check and attend a special "instructor workshop."
"Our instructors have to have clean backgrounds - no felonies, no firearm-related violations, and no misdemeanors in the last two years," Coleman said. "Then, in the instructor workshops, we teach them teaching methods, DNR policies, and how to do all the paperwork associated with the classes."
Some of the instructors teach solo, while others take a tag-team approach.
"My team has five members," Jones said. "Any of us could teach the course by himself, but we prefer to come as a group and play off each other. My job as leader is to make sure we don't forget anything."
Jones said the class curriculum evolves to address safety issues as they arise.
"Early on, the material was mostly firearm-safety related, because that was where we had the biggest problems. Recently we've needed to add sections on tree-stand and ATV safety, because that's where the big problems are now.
"It's fun to teach a segment of the curriculum and watch students' faces as they learn. I see people open their eyes and say, 'Wow, I get it now.'"
As the curriculum has evolved, so has the makeup of the classes themselves.
"Twenty-five percent of the students I teach now are female," Jones said. "Many of them have never touched a gun before, and they aren't sure they want to. We explain to them that a gun is a tool, just like a skillet or a screwdriver. It's rewarding to see them learn to handle a gun and realize it's not some sort of monster."
Law enforcement officials credit the course's firearm-safety training for dramatically lowering the state's annual number of hunting-related shootings.
"Before mandatory hunter ed, we were having 15 to 20 fatalities a year, mostly from shootings," Jones said. "Over the past six or seven years, fatalities from accidental shootings have been almost zero."
Those statistics give Jones and his fellow instructors a great deal of satisfaction, but he says their greatest rewards come from former students who approach them in public and tell them how something they learned during the course helped them to avoid problems afield.
One of the best compliments Jones' teaching team ever received came from an unexpected source - an 87-year-old man who had accompanied a young relative to the class.
"I asked him if he wanted to take the course, too, and he said 'no,'" Jones recalled. "After the first break, he came up and asked me to add his name to the list. When the course ended, he asked to speak to the class.
"He said, 'I've been hunting for 65 years, and I didn't think anyone could teach me anything more about it. I'm here to tell you I learned things I never knew.'"
Many of the volunteer instructors are retirees. Jones said retirees are a good fit for the role because they tend to have more spare time, but he acknowledged the need to get some younger folks involved.
"The majority of us are getting pretty old, and it would sure be nice to see some fresh young faces in the crowd," he said.
"The good thing is that we have some really dedicated instructors out there, spending time and money to make [the classes] happen. They have no idea how much I, as president of the association, appreciate that."
Reach John McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1231.