There’s a history of selflessness in North Dakota’s outdoors.
For example, a half-century ago, and likely earlier, a number of people across the state concerned with the state’s natural resources, volunteered their time as special game wardens. Their compensation, while not monetary, was an understanding that violations related to North Dakota’s wildlife would come under greater scrutiny thanks to their help.
This altruistic mindset continues today in North Dakota Game and Fish Department programs that teach the inexperienced to fish, trap furbearers and understand why habitat on the landscape is so important to wildlife.
When asked where Department programs, such as Hooked on Fishing and Fur Harvester Education, would be without volunteers, Jeff Long, Department education coordinator, had a simple answer.
“Without volunteers,” he said, “these programs just wouldn’t exist. We just don’t have the staff to pull off a fish camp or whatever it may be.”
Greg Link, Department conservation and communications chief, said that while the time commitment from volunteers is sometimes considerable, the results don’t often vary.
“The kids get excited because they’re outdoors learning something new, then the volunteers get excited …” he said. “It’s often a pretty rewarding experience for the volunteers working with kids.”
Sherry Niesar, Bismarck, has volunteered with the Game and Fish Department for nearly three decades. She started years ago because the agency’s mission echoed her recreational and personal interests.
“I got started because I wanted to share my passion and pass on my interest in the outdoors to others,” she said.
Niesar continues to visit classrooms and educate youngsters about North Dakota‘s natural resources.
“A lot of kids don’t even go outside anymore and they’ve never seen a skunk, raccoon or a mink,” she said. “If I can go into a classroom and spark some interest and get a kid outside, then what I’ve done is worth it.”
Renae Patrick works with a youngster at an event sponsored by Missouri Valley Shooting Sports. Volunteers are essential in the statewide effort of introducing youngsters to shooting and other outdoor activities.
Of all the Department’s programs that enlist volunteers, hunter education is the only one that is mandatory. State law, enacted in 1979, requires anyone born after December 31, 1961 who wants to hunt in North Dakota to pass a certified hunter education course. The courses are taught largely by volunteers.
Hunter education is required for youth who are turning 12 years old, and kids can take the class at age 11.
Since hunter education became a requirement, Game and Fish has certified about 185,000 students. It’s likely that a couple of thousand volunteers have helped teach classes during that time.
This year, 192 hunter education classes were taught around the state from January to August. That, according to daily emails and phone calls to Department headquarters in Bismarck, wasn’t enough.
John Riske of Reynolds, a North Dakota Game and Fish Department volunteer, works with two possible future hunters at the Department's Conservation and Outdoor Skills Park at the state fair in Minot.
To try to meet a growing demand for classes in a growing state, today Game and Fish is looking to add many new volunteers, both men and women, to its roster of instructors. In addition, Link said there is always a need to certify new instructors to replace longtime volunteers who retire, or others who simply leave the ranks.
“We need to recruit a large force of younger instructors so we have enough people to teach the courses in 5-10 years,” said Chris Grondahl, Game and Fish outreach section supervisor.
Link said veteran instructors understand the inevitability of turnover. “I think the longtime instructors realize this as well as anyone and wonder ‘who is going to take my spot.’ They, as much as anyone, want to see a healthy hunter education program,” he said.
Becoming a volunteer instructor is not an overly involved process. In the past, besides a background check, prospective volunteers would take a 14-hour online instructor course, then teach a full class under guidance of a certified instructor, followed by an instructor quiz.
From start to finish, if everything goes as planned, Grondahl said it takes about two months to become a certified hunter education instructor in North Dakota. After that, Game and Fish’s expectation is that volunteer instructors participate in at least one full class, which typically includes six classroom sessions in the evenings over the course of about two weeks.
“Our message in our hunter education program goes beyond gun safety,” Grondahl said. “It also includes landowner-hunter relations, conservation, wildlife management, what it means to be a hunter. It’s a good course and we want to maintain its value.”
Volunteers are essential to many of the Game and Fish Department's programs. Without people like Skip Balzer of Bismarck, pictured here working with young anglers through the Department's Hooked on Fishing program, many of these programs just wouldn't exist.
Link said hunter education graduates are expected not only to know the ins and outs of gun safety and hunter ethics, but be loud voices in the conservation community.
“In this day and age where there are a lot of stressors on our natural resources, you really need to have vocal people willing to stand up for the conservation of that resource,” Link said. “Part of the responsibility of being a hunter is to be an advocate for conservation and the resource.”
Starting in 2014, the process to certify volunteer hunter education instructors in North Dakota will change. Instead of an online course followed by assisting with a full class as an apprentice, Game and Fish will certify instructors through a one-day, hands-on course.
“New hunter education volunteers will attend a day-long academy,” Grondahl said, “and go over all the materials and training aids … and they’ll be taught by a cadre of certified instructors.”
By providing instructors with more modern visual and other teaching aids, “we expect to add to what is already a good hunter education program,” Link added.
Game and Fish will also require current certified instructors to attend a one-day training session over the next two years, Grondahl said.
While the change in the training process wasn’t designed as a recruiting tool for new volunteer instructors, Game and Fish hopes it will help the effort.
“We hope the people who attend the academy walk away excited and become promoters in their communities to help bolster our volunteer force,” Grondahl said. “Volunteers contribute to North Dakota’s hunting heritage and introduce youth to the outdoors. That alone is incentive to become an instructor.”
Hunter Education Courses
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department offers two types of hunter education courses.
- Traditional hunter education: 14-hour course taught entirely in the classroom.
- Home study: 14-hour course time split between classroom and online study. For more information on either course, see the course description page on the Game and Fish Department’s website, gf.nd.gov.
Courses focus on safety, ethics, laws and regulations, landowner relations, wildlife identification and conservation.
Students generally receive their hunter education card in the mail 7-10 days after successfully completing a class. Hunter education certificate numbers may be found online once the records for a completed class have been processed.
A list of available classes is found on the website. The list is updated as classes are added or filled. Classes are taught by volunteers across the state and are held primarily during the spring and early summer months. In some areas a few classes may be available during the late summer and fall depending on volunteer instructor availability.
To enroll in a class go to the hunter education section of the Department’s online services website. For any questions about the course email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be a Conservation Volunteer
Tom Sauvage (far right) of Linton is a volunteer instructor with the Game and Fish Department's Fur Harvester Education program. The Fur Harvester Education course is a comprehensive study covering all aspects of fur harvest in North Dakota. The course includes both classroom and hands-on activities.
The Game and Fish Department hopes to help as many people as possible learn about wildlife, habitat and conservation. Because Department staff is limited, much of this effort depends on volunteers.
Anyone interested in helping people learn more about wildlife and the outdoors, check out the volunteer projects below, visit the Game and Fish Department’s website, gf.nd.gov, and contact us (701) 328-6300.
- Hunter Education – Teach students about safe firearms handling, wildlife conservation and hunter ethics.
- Boat and Water Safety – Teach about water safety using the Boating Basics Course and hands-on learning trunk.
- Conservation Volunteers – Assist in outdoor activities such as planting trees, maintaining properties, collecting and entering data, and work at area lakes.
- Fur Harvester Education – Share your knowledge and expertise with all ages and levels of fur hunters and trappers, from beginners to veterans. You do not need to be an experienced trapper to help teach this course. Individuals with a background in teaching or knowledge of furbearer biology are encouraged to become instructors.
- Habitats of North Dakota (for K-12 Educators) – Habitats of North Dakota materials promote teaching and learning about wildlife conservation and resource management. There are five Habitats of North Dakota texts available that cover wetlands, prairie, badlands, woodlands and riparian areas. Each text is illustrated and greatly enhanced with color photographs provided by the Game and Fish Department.
- Hooked on Fishing – Teach basics of fishing, aquatic habitats and fish species found in the state. Take students fishing with Department-provided equipment.