Young deer hunter in the badlands

Program Has Influenced Generations of Hunters

Authors and Contributors
Ron Wilson

A pioneering law in North Dakota’s hunting circles was applauded decades ago in North Dakota OUTDOORS, setting the course for safer days in the field.

“Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of thinking sportsmen around the state herald a new law as a landmark decision destined to contribute positively toward the improvement and continuance of their most beloved sport,” wrote William McDannold, North Dakota Game and Fish Department hunter education coordinator in the December 1977 NDO.

House Bill 1458, passed by lawmakers in the 45th legislative session in 1977 and signed by Governor Arthur Link, directed anyone born after December 31, 1961 who wanted to hunt in North Dakota to pass a certified hunter education course.

“My phone has been rung many times by dads calling to ask why in the heck Johnny or Suzie has to take the course. After all, he (dad) has taught the kid all he or she needs to know. I can’t doubt the parent’s word and must commend the caller for accepting the responsibility to give a son or daughter proper guidance. But at the same time, I am compelled to state that too many parents fail to give their youngsters enough – or any – training in safety and responsibilities before allowing them afield with a gun,” McDannold wrote in NDO in 1977.

Kids in a hunter education class in 2014
In 2014, when this photo was taken, nearly 5,500 students were certified that year in the Department’s hunter education program.

The effective date of the law was January 1, 1979. Since then, more than a quarter-million students have graduated from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s hunter education program.

In 2019, the Department’s hunter education program turned 40, a noteworthy milestone for a program that has influenced generations of hunters.

“Hunter education has evolved over the years,” said Marty Egeland, Department education supervisor. “While first and foremost we want students to be able to handle firearms properly and make the correct, safe decisions while hunting, we also want them to leave the classroom with some background and understanding of conservation, game management, hunter ethics, those sorts of things.”

To meet the challenges of a program that caters to students of varying ages in the urban and rural reaches of the state, Game and Fish relies on more than 700 volunteers to teach the courses.

“We don’t have enough people in our agency to deliver a program like this, so we rely on volunteers to teach students around the state,” Egeland said. “They give up a tremendous amount of time. This volunteered time is in addition to their regular jobs ... it’s evenings and weekends of teaching others because they care enough about our hunting heritage and the next generation of hunters.”

Egeland, who has been a hunter education instructor since 1992, before he started working for the agency, said not only has the course been adjusted over time, so too has the instructor certification process, which nowadays includes background checks.

“Once a year we have an academy for new instructors where they will learn a variety of things,” he said. “Because the instructors don’t necessarily come from teaching backgrounds, we provide them the tools at the academy to be successful in the hunter education classrooms.”

New instructors mentor under current instructors before teaching classes on their own.

“Most of the new instructors have been recruited by another instructor and that’s typically who they team up with,” Egeland said. “Our best recruiting tool is actually our current instructors.”

Two of the biggest challenges in the Department’s hunter education program is volunteer instructor recruitment and meeting the demand of students spread across North Dakota who want to take a course.

“We don’t have instructors in every small town and some students are going to have to travel to where they can find a class,” Egeland said. “And by no means is this a new problem, this is longstanding.”

Egeland grew up in Edmore and enrolled in hunter education in 1984. There wasn’t an instructor in town, so Egeland and friends carpooled about 30 miles to Langdon where a course was offered.

Hunters crossing a fence
More than a quarter-million students have graduated from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s hunter education program since its inception in 1979.

“Fast forward to the same small town just a few years ago … We got a call from the superintendent of Edmore Public School saying that they needed a hunter education class for their kids,” he said. “We found an instructor willing to drive up from Devils Lake to teach the class. So, yeah, it’s always going to be a challenge to have hunter education in every town.”

The Game and Fish Department offers the traditional 14-hour hunter education course taught entirely in the classroom, and a home study course. The latter is also a 14-hour course, split between the classroom and online study.

Today, most students are certified through the traditional in-class courses. In 2019, for example, just 273 students took the home study course, compared to 4,542 students who were certified in traditional courses.

“With the online course, students will come in for an initial classroom day to do some hands-on gun handling and talk about a few topics not covered in the book,” Egeland said. “Then after completing the online work at home, they come in for a final night and we run them through a variety of things, such as how firearms operate, how to cross a fence, how to get in a vehicle with a firearm, those sorts of things.”

Egeland said the Department’s hunter education program continues to evolve and he suspects that online learning will become more pronounced sometime in the future.

“While you can do everything in life online nowadays, we still want to have some integrity in our courses, we want to make sure that people have those gun-handling skills,” he said. “So, there’s probably going to be some evolution in how the courses are taught, but we’re still going to need to maintain the hands-on part of it.”

The challenge of meeting the demands of students who want to take a hunter education class no matter where they live will likely remain a hurdle for some time to come.

“We’re never going to have enough classes out there or have classes that fit everyone’s schedule, and people will have to continue to make sacrifices to find a hunter education class that fits,” Egeland said. “While it’s not as easy as going down to the store and buying a box of shells, we know that the program is successful and has certainly reduced hunting accidents in North Dakota tremendously.”

Online Hunter Education Certification

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department is offering an online hunter education course for students who will turn at least age 12 on or before December 31, 2020.

Marty Egeland, Department education supervisor, said with most in-person hunter education classes canceled this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, Game and Fish needed to find a way to get students certified for hunter education this year.

“And with most classes held before the deer application deadline, we had to adjust the way we administer our classes,” Egeland said.

The online course is available to students who were already enrolled in classes that were canceled, and also to qualifying students who were not previously enrolled in a class. A 25% discount is being offered for taking the online course.

Students who were already enrolled in a 2020 class that was canceled do not have to register with Game and Fish again. They will automatically receive an email with instructions to start the online course.

Prospective students who had not previously registered, can sign up online. After signing up for the class, the student will receive an email with further relevant information and instructions. The online portion of the class must be completed within two weeks of signup.

For both pre-registered and new students, when the online hunter education course and an accompanying virtual field day are completed, a temporary hunter education number will be provided, which will allow lottery applications and license purchases in 2020.

Each student will then have until December 31, 2020 to attend one in-person class session, to take the official North Dakota Game and Fish Department hunter education written and practical exams. If this is not completed by the end of the year, the temporary hunter education number will expire and the student will have to retake the course in the future.

Game and Fish will notify students when dates and locations are established for these final class sessions.

Another option for those who want to hunt in North Dakota in 2020, is a one-time exemption called an apprentice license. Individuals who are at least age 12 by the end of the calendar year, and who have not previously had an apprentice license, can apply for one and use that to purchase 2020 licenses without a hunter education number. An apprentice license holder must then complete the official hunter education course before being able to purchase hunting licenses in future years.

Hunter Education Over Time

  • 1979 – New law triggers the beginning of hunter education classes in North Dakota.
  • 49 – Number of hunting-related fatalities in the state in the 15 years prior to 1979.
  • 2 – Number of hunting-related fatalities in the state from 2011-16.
  • 3 – Number of hunting-related fatalities in the state from 2017 to present.