Hunter safety instructors fight to retain in-person testing requirement

Hunter safety instructors fight to retain in-person testing requirement

Paul A. Smith

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Patches and safety cards are given to graduates of Wisconsin hunter education classes.

Hunter education leaders in Wisconsin are fighting to retain what they call the most critical aspect of the state’s successful safety program: in-person testing for youth.

The Wisconsin Hunter Education Coalition last week began circulating a memo titled “Demand there be No Shortcuts to Safe Hunting in Wisconsin.”

“The long-standing key to improving our hunting safety record has been having new hunters being taught and tested by qualified instructors,” said John Plenke, chairman of the coalition. “We can’t stand by as legislation is proposed to change that.”

Wisconsin law requires hunters under the age of 18 to pass a “field day” of instruction and testing conducted by certified instructors in order to obtain a hunting safety certificate.

Students who took the book portion of hunter education over the Internet take part in a field day of instruction and testing to earn their Wisconsin hunter safety certificate.

That would become optional under a pair of bills introduced this fall as part of the “Sporting Freedom Package” supported by Hunter Nation, the Kansas-based advocacy group.

Senate Bill 611 and Assembly Bill 670 would allow an individual to satisfy the field testing requirement simply by participating in a mentored hunt with a licensed adult.

The measures are intended to make it easier for prospective hunters to get certified in the state. Data have shown a long-term decline in hunting in Wisconsin and nationally and some recent efforts to recruit people to the activity have focused on simplifying the process.

Luke Hilgemann, a Marshfield resident and president of Hunter Nation, said at an Oct. 19 Senate committee hearing on SB 611 that experience with the state’s mentored hunting law has shown the change could safely be made.

Since 2009, 150,000 young hunters have participated in Wisconsin’s mentored hunting program and not a single firearm injury has resulted, Hilgemann said.

Plenke agreed with that statistic but said three hunting accidents have occurred this year involving others who had only taken the online course.

The four cardinal rules of firearm safety are listed on a sign at an outdoor session of a Wisconsin hunter education class. Mandatory safety education has helped lead to a marked reduction in firearm-related injuries and deaths during Wisconsin hunting seasons.

Many long-time hunter education instructors feel it’s unacceptable to add any risk to the equation.

“I believe it is misguided to purport that a mentored hunt can prove the same quality of hands-on training as a hunter education program,” said Rick Heisler, who has served as a Wisconsin hunter safety instructor for 43 years. “I am in total opposition to SB 611.”

Heisler said the proposed legislation has no safeguards or checks on the level of training or expertise of the mentor.

The bills come on the heels of a suspension of the in-person testing requirement due to COVID-19. After hunting education courses were canceled during the pandemic in 2020, the Department of Natural Resources for many months allowed young hunters to get a certificate through an online-only process.

That has reverted back to normal and the hunter education coalition is working to keep it in place.

The coalition includes Plenke as chair, as well as Heisler, Ray Anderson, Mark LaBarbera, Kevyn Quamme and Tom Thoresen.

Senate Bill 611 has already been passed by the Senate.

Assembly Bill 670 was assigned Oct. 29 to the Assembly Committee on Sporting Heritage but has yet to have a hearing.

The coalition is asking for a “call to action” from the state’s citizens to contact their representatives in the Assembly.

“You can no longer stand by and be the ‘silent majority’,” the coalition said in its memo. “These bills would make it legal for a person having received no hunter education to be certified during a mentored hunt by a person having no training or has only taken the online hunter safety class possibly without any firearm experience.”

The coalition also says the bills were produced without consultation with the Wisconsin Hunter Education Instructor Association, Wisconsin Conservation Congress, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and other groups who knew the potential dangers of the measures.

“Mentoring is how a lot of us started,” Plenke said. “But in and of itself it’s not a total substitute for a consistent safety message by trained instructors.”