Like most hunting laws, conservation New York Style started in rod and gun clubs. Organized hunters in the New York State Conservation Council decided it was necessary to do something about hunting accidents. Veterans returning from World War II swelled the ranks of hunters, and upwards of 150 hunting injuries — 15 to 20 of them fatal — occurred annually.
In several states, hunters and wildlife agency staff had been teaching hunting courses at rod and gun clubs and at conservation summer camps for years. New York’s Conservation Department records of this date back at least to 1944. Those courses, however, were reaching only a small percentage of hunters.
By 1949, the Conservation Council had agreed on mandating a gun safety course for younger hunters, and convinced the State Legislature and Governor to enact it. Of course, it was up to the Conservation Department to make it work, and they soon realized they needed help. The National Rifle Association was the logical place to go. At the time, the NRA’s primary interest was target shooting competition and promoting marksmanship, but they had hundreds of rifle instructors around the state.
Surveying NRA members and enlisting volunteers took many months. Meanwhile, the Conservation Department’s Division of Fish and Game was overwhelmed. Some of the courses were only about 15 minutes long, according to Wilson. Even the short courses, however, included hands-on lessons, evaluating the student’s capability to safely handle firearms.
Under contract from New York State, however, the NRA soon developed a four hour course in firearms safety, complete with a manual and instructor’s guide. The Department helped with communication, but at first, it was mostly an NRA gun safety program. In 1951 Game Protector Bryan Burgin was appointed Hunter Training Coordinator, and Dick Wilson was assigned as co-coordinator in 1953, covering the western half of the state. This was the start of a more comprehensive hunter education program. The co-coordinators (later joined by downstate officers, the most well-known being Jack Leeman from Long Island) organized voluntary instructor training sessions for the volunteers recruited by NRA, and were the instructors’ main link to the Department.
Since the NRA material covered only safety and marksmanship, Department staff took New York Fish and Game material, such as the pocket-size 8-page “Manual for the New Hunter” and added it to the NRA gun safety course for a more complete introduction to hunting, adding hunter ethics, landowner relations and conservation.
For several years, NRA supplied all the training materials from their Washington, D.C. office. As the number of states with hunter education grew, however, NRA turned over instructor coordination and supply services to the individual states.
As the Hunter Training Program grew, laws changed also. In 1951 the age for courses changed from new hunters under 17 to new hunters under 21. The number of hunting injuries caused by young hunters dropped, but the overall injury rate continued to rise, with most injuries caused by adult hunters. In response, the exemption for new adult hunters was removed in 1960. Now all new hunters, regardless of their age, must pass the course.
In the 1970s, a change in the funding of wildlife conservation programs resulted in a virtual rebirth of hunter education. The 1937 Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, provided millions of dollars in excise taxes on sporting arms and ammunition for state wildlife agencies, but not for education programs. Amendments in 1970 and 1973 expanded taxes to more kinds of hunting equipment, and earmarked half of the new revenues for hunter education and public shooting ranges. This enabled states to beef up hunter education programs.
With new funding, the staff devoted to hunter education more than tripled, and a more effective program was developed. The new staff working with volunteers and international experts developed new training methods, materials, and procedures. For the first time, instructors got uniform training and other support.
A network of Master Instructors was recruited and groomed to train new instructors and teach refresher courses for existing instructors. New curriculum material improved training in hunter ethics, conservation, and other topics of vital importance to today’s hunters, in addition to better safety training methods.
New York’s sportsmen organizations took advantage of the increased support for hunter education, too. They saw the value of education for solving problems in specialized activities that require a high degree of skill and knowledge. In 1977, bowhunters, through the Conservation Council, got a law passed for mandatory bowhunter education, and organized trappers followed with a mandatory trapper training law in 1980. With these changes, the Hunter Training program became the Sportsman Education Program.
The results have been phenomenal. Today’s hunters and trappers are the best trained, safest sportsmen and women in history. For example, hunting injury rates have dropped over 60 percent since 1967. As hunting, trapping and sound wildlife management face new challenges, education will be a critical factor in continuing the intelligent action and support of hunters and trappers that has proven to be the key to meeting those challenges.
Over the past 50 years, the New York State Sportsman Education Program has developed from a simple gun safety course to a sophisticated program instilling the values of responsibility, safety and conservation.