The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks wishes to make permanent the option of allowing aspiring young hunters to take required hunter education classes online only. Many volunteers associated with the classes are concerned about that, and so are we.
We perfectly understood the necessity of offering an online-only program during the COVID-19 pandemic. And we also appreciate the fact that people's lives are busier than ever, and that students from more isolated parts of rural Montana would find online-only classes convenient.
“It’s the whole customer service thing,” said Wayde Cooperider, FWP Outdoor Skills and Safety supervisor, who oversees the program. “We don’t want to stand in the way of people getting outdoors.”
FWP has had the benefit of 1,000 volunteers who teach the in-person classes for the agency as part of the licensing process. That itself is a wonderful thing that tells us a lot about Montanans' love for the state's hunting and outdoor heritage.
Those outstanding volunteers see first-hand how young students learn in the classes. And they know how vital in-person, hands-on firearms training component is. The unavoidable fact is that an online-only program can't provide that key part of the training.
“That’s kind of shocking to me,” said Jim Arneson, a Custer County hunter ed instructor for 32 years, told the Billings Gazette's Brett French. “There’s no hands-on training with a firearm at that point.”
Under the new policy, online hunter education will now be open to students who are age 12 and older by Jan. 16 of the current license year, Cooperider said. That means 10-year-olds hunting with a mentor will still have to attend in-person classes. There's a possibility of offering online students an optional field day if they want one, he added.
Roger Wimmer, a Wolf Point resident who has been volunteering to teach hunter ed for 47 years, told French that classroom courses lead to discussions between students, as well as between students and instructors.
Glasgow volunteer and former FWP employee Andrew McKean said an in-person field day for online students demonstrates how much of the skills taught in class have "stuck" with the students.
We are also concerned that parents or others could end up taking the online courses in students' names.
Arneson also expressed the worry that the online program could reduce the ranks of FWP's volunteers.
For all of those reasons, we urge FWP to rethink making the online-only option permanent.
As carry laws are liberalized and guns appear on our college campuses as a result of new legislation, Montanans need more firearm safety education, not less.
We believe that Montana's volunteer-instructor program, as previously set up, was an example to the nation. And while taking an in-person course might be less convenient for some young aspiring hunters, the investment of that time can provide the basis for a lifetime of enjoyable, safe hunting experiences. And make sure those lifetimes are not tragically cut short by hunting accidents.
We urge FWP to rethink its intention to offer online-only hunter education.