A comprehensive evaluation of Virginia's hunter education program

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Hunter education began in the 1930's and 1940's in response to an increasing number of hunting accidents. Early programs focused on gun safety. Later, emphasis shifted to a balance between gun safety and hunter ethics.

Virginia's Hunter Education Program in 1980 had been operating on a voluntary basis for 20 years and had more than 250,000 graduates. The program was six hours in duration and was taught by game wardens and volunteer instructors. Classes were given to anyone 12 years of age or older, but students in public schools were the primary targets.

Though Virginia's program had been in effect for many years, no formal evaluation as to the effectiveness of hunter education had been conducted. The present study was designed to provide a comprehensive evaluation of Virginia's Hunter Education Program. The study was conducted in three phases.

Phase one involved development of a new student examination for use in pre- and post-test knowledge assessment. Seven typical hunter education classes and one class of game warden recruits were tested in 1982. Test scores improved approximately 16 percent. The hunter education program seemed to be increasing students' knowledge of safe and ethical hunting. However, due to design and measurement weaknesses, no strong conclusions about the effectiveness of the hunter education program in improving students' knowledge can be made.

Phase two was a participant observational study of dove hunters at two wildlife management areas in Virginia. The purpose of this phase was to compare hunting behavior of hunter education graduates versus those hunters who had not taken the course. The 112 hunters observed during the 1981 and 1982 season were later mailed a questionnaire designed to gather information on the individual hunter's experience, interest in, commitment to, and knowledge of hunting as well as some demographic characteristics. Observational and questionnaire data were combined into 32 variables and correlated with the hunter education variable. No meaningful correlations were found. Therefore, hunter education seemed to have little effect on hunters' behavior in the field.

Phase three was a naturalistic inquiry evaluation of how the program was being implemented and received throughout Virginia. In-depth interviews were conducted with 57 people closely involved with hunter education. The primary purpose of this phase was to discover problems in the program and recommend solutions. The primary problems were lack of effective leadership and lack of internal agency support. Major recommendations included moving the entire program into the Education Division and creating a strong hunter safety coordinator position.

Overall, the three-phased evaluation revealed that Virginia's Hunter Education Program lacked effective leadership, was being poorly implemented, and seemed to have little effect on hunters' behavior in the field. Though these results were obtained in Virginia, the investigator believes that the same results might apply to most other hunter education programs across the country.