Last month my friend Rob and I took a Hunter Education Course offered by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). This course is a prerequisite to applying for or buying a hunting license, and it’s taught by volunteer instructors that are trained and certified by CPW. The twelve hours of instruction were split over a Saturday and Sunday — roughly, eleven “classroom” hours in the back storage area of JAX Mercantile in Louisville, and a one-hour “live fire” component at a firing range in Erie.
At the end of the course I was pleased to receive my Hunter Education Certificate by passing a 50-question multiple-choice test (my score: 50/50) and by firing ten 22 caliber rounds without error. But otherwise I was grossly underwhelmed by the course’s rigor and comprehensiveness. It was a wasted opportunity to meaningfully educate two first-time hunters, and possibly the thousands of others who take it each year, too. It was also an embarrassing introduction to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
When I arrived at JAX on Saturday morning, I was excited, open-minded, and ready to learn. For I am exactly the type of person who should be required to take an introductory hunting course:
- I have never hunted, or joined others on a hunt, or shot or harvested an animal;
- I have never had formal instruction on firearm operation and safety; and,
- I was only vaguely familiar with Colorado’s hunting rules and regulations.
Rob was even greener than me: he’d never shot a gun before, and had never reviewed any of the hunting regs.
What I was hoping to learn
Twelve hours is a generous amount of instructional time — enough to at least thoroughly cover the basics, it would seem. I figured that my education would continue long after the course, like through personal research on niche subjects (e.g. Cameron Hanes-style backcountry hunting, and the compatibility of my rifle with different ammunition ballistics) and then an actual hunt.
In the course I mostly expected to learn about general hunting topics, such as:
- Firearms: types, ammunition, operation, and safety;
- Wildlife: species identification, habitat, behavior;
- Planning a hunt: hunting styles, fitness training, scouting, trip scheduling, gear selection;
- Backcountry skills: gear selection, navigation, first aid, emergency;
- Hunter responsibility and ethics; and,
- After the shot: tracking, field dressing, transporting, processing.
I also expected to learn about topics that are more specific to Colorado:
- Colorado Parks and Wildlife: purpose, funding, structure;
- Hunting licenses: types, and how to obtain one;
- Game Management Units;
- Harvest statistics; and,
- State-specific rules and regulations.
What did I actually learn? And room for improvement.
On the way home after our first 8-hour day, Rob and I agreed that we’d learned almost nothing, and that we would have learned much more if we’d simply stayed at home and self-studied for a few hours. The second day did little to change how we felt.
There were four main faults — and thus room for improvement — with the instruction:
1. Scattered. I was rarely aware of what we were supposed to be learning, to the point where I wondered if the instruction was simply stream of consciousness. A tutorial on species identification, for example, was diverted by a tangent on private land access, which led to a conversation about navigation. No syllabus was ever shared with the class; if there was one, it seemed to have no logical structure, or it wasn’t followed.
2. Superficial. Most of the aforementioned topics were referenced, but rarely in great detail. The worst offense was game processing: we were dismissed for lunch just a few minutes into a tutorial video, which the instructor prefaced by describing as “not very good.” Personally, I’ll definitely watch a few processing videos on YouTube before my hunt, but CPW lost its opportunity to ensure that I know what to do after pulling the trigger. Ironically, CPW has an excellent video on their website — I’m bewildered why it hasn’t been sent to instructors with a “Required Viewing” label.
3. Antiquated. The course materials desperately need to be modernized, for the purposes of both appearance and relevancy. Instructional videos from the 1970’s about hunter ethics and safety (one clip is embedded below) were literally laughed at by the class and not taken seriously. And a CPW handbook about “The Art of Survival” omits any mention of modern “signaling” devices like cell phones and satellite-enabled communication devices, e.g. Iridium phones and SPOT GPS Satellite Messenger.
3. Heavily verbal. Students have different learning styles. For example, I best retain information when I can see it, in the form of text, maps, graphs, objects, etc. Unfortunately, the instruction was heavily verbal, reducing its impact on me and other visual students. I’m unsure why the available projector and screen were not used more often.
How did I still manage a perfect score?
That I managed to score 50/50 on the final test despite the instruction’s shortcomings is telling.
First, it was a super easy test, to the point where I’m unnerved by this being the only barrier to other hunters sharing the woods with me. Second, the instructors were “teaching to the test”: topics that were not the subject of a question were lazily addressed, and topics that were the subject of questions were preceded by a friendly wink and a head-scratch. Was the goal to educate, or to simply make sure that everyone received a Hunter Education Certificate?
Some might argue that my expectations were too high for a $10 course and volunteer instructors. My response is simple: If the honest objective of this program is hunter education, then I’d say it’s failing and needs to be reevaluated, including its cost and instruction quality. Currently, the course seems to be more of a control mechanism and a political talking point, since little meaningful “education” actually seems to occur.
It’s surprising to me that CPW encourages sit-in courses, despite there being online courses that offer a number of advantages:
- Consistent, comprehensive, and high-quality instruction;
- Forced student engagement, via mid-module quizzes and exercises;
- Improved access to aspiring hunters who have limited free time or who live in remote areas;
- Opportunities for advanced-level modules specific to states, species, and firearms.
Live fire is perhaps the sole course component that should not be replaced with a virtual experience.
A final complaint
With this being a CPW-sponsored course, I was surprised and disappointed by its politicization by the instructors, notably the assistant. In their roles as CPW representatives, I felt it inappropriate to do the following:
- Encourage the joining or giving of money to firearm and hunting advocacy groups;
- Comment on — and distort the true facts about — pending gun safety legislation; and,
- Not show equal respect for other outdoor recreationists and their viewpoints.
Hunting and firearms are already hot-button issues, and I would think that CPW and its certified instructors would see this as an opportunity to share their passion and knowledge with first-time hunters, and perhaps to bring atypical and open-minded hunters — like me and Rob — into the fold. Instead, my experience only reinforced cultural stereotypes.