November 2017
Youth Matters

FFA Sentinel: The Unsung Heroes of Hunter Education

Agricultural educators play a key role for student hunters.

 

Agriscience students at Straughn High School are being instructed in safe shotgun handling and trap shooting.

For the 180,000-plus hunters in Alabama, the time is nigh. Anticipations and hopes are high, food plots are being planted, and first-time hunters are being trained to be safe, responsible, knowledgeable and ethical outdoor men and women.

Alabama’s first cool snap of fall has come and gone. So has the noon start of hunting season by way of the mourning dove season, but it unofficially kicked off the rest of hunting season.

Now, the attention turns to the white-tailed deer. Once nearly gone from most parts in Alabama, the white-tailed deer has rebounded. This rebound is thanks in part to the scientific approach to managing the state’s resources by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the hunters and outdoor enthusiasts of Alabama.

It is opening day of Alabama youth gun deer season. It is a Friday and a quick change of clothes for father and son, a splash of cover scent and a quick check of the wind … oh, and one hurried walk to the tree stand. As an almost-perfect fall afternoon wanes, one 7-year-old nods off to dream of Ninja Turtles or some other superhero, but dad is ever vigilant, glassing the clear cut and listening to the sounds of nature. Almost dark, there is a rustle from the wood line.

Dad uses as quick a poke as possible to rouse the boy without alarming the deer.

Dad whispers, "Son. Son, there is a deer. Son, it is a buck! Wake up. Wake up."

The reply he gets, "Daddy, I want to go back to sleep."

Another more forceful poke and the reply, a little more clear, "Dad … what? Did you say deer?"

"Yes, son, a buck!"

Lane Chamness with his first buck. Lane is the son of the author.

 

Now with deliberation and without hesitation, the boy moves into position, wide-awake.

"Where is he?"

"There, by the persimmon tree!" exclaims dad.

"Where’s the persimmon tree?"

"Over there to the right!"

"I see him!"

"Shhhh! Get your rifle ready."

"Ready, Dad. I see him."

"Are you on him?"

"Yeah!"

"Right behind the shoulder."

"I know, Dad!"

"OK. On the count of three, squeeze the trigger. One, two …"

Boom!

"Three."

"Did I get him?"

"I don’t know."

Looking through the binoculars, the hunters search for the deer.

"Let’s wait until dark and get down and go look."

"I want to go now, did I get him?"

"Let’s just wait a few minutes."

The darkness begins to surround the hunters as they search through backpacks that have been packed for a while to find orange hats and vests. Flashlights come on. For what seems like an eternity to both hunters as they walk the almost 100 yards to the last known spot of their quarry, rounding a bend on the tree line, a glimmer, an eye shine, a few more steps, a white belly … euphoria, elation, serenity, joy, adrenaline … and this is just from the dad. As the hunters approach to examine the work of the day with a hug and high-five to see the most beautiful five-point buck the dad has ever seen.

"Remember, gun safety and all of those talks," dad says reassuringly.

"Yes sir," the boy says.

"I am so proud of you. What a shot!"

 

Hunter education is for all students. This young lady has a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa. She can see the large colorful rings on the target and made these shots under the supervision of her agriscience teacher at West End High School.

What does this story have to do with agricultural education and why is it in the "FFA Sentinel"? Well, there are two reasons. One, it is hunting season. Two, there are a lot of unsung heroes of hunter education. Agricultural education and FFA are two sides of the same coin. Agricultural educators or FFA advisors teach many varied agricultural subjects across our state, but one that is a perennial favorite to students is hunter education. Alabama agriculture teachers, with the support of and in conjunction with the Alabama DCNR, certify a new crop of hunters each and every year. To be exact, in 2016, 18,962 hunters were certified statewide.

Agriscience teachers across Alabama engage students by exposing them to not only the safety but the biology, anatomy and habitat of many of Alabama’s game and nongame wildlife. Debates are held regarding fair chase and good ethical behavior vs. irresponsible behavior.

The practicality of the science being taught through a hunter education course goes beyond safety to address land management and stewardship, the importance of our natural resources, and the reasons behind scientific-based management. Introduce a young hunter to the common sense science of good management and you will have a productive land manager who may one day row crop and raise cattle with deer on his or her brain, a doctor who owns a farm just to relax and enjoy nature, or a famous outdoor TV personality. Through agriscience classes in high school, those students were introduced to the idea and understanding of land management.

Hunter education is primarily focused on safety. According to the Alabama DCNR, there were 20 hunting incidents reported in the 2016-2017 hunting season. In the 1973-1974 season, there were 46 incidents; firearm accidents alone accounted for 43 of them. This shows a huge reduction in the number of incidents in Alabama. Only seven of the 2016-2017 season were firearm incidents.

Agriscience teachers are educating both their students and the public on hunting safely. In most agricultural classrooms and labs, the course is extended to further detail – often bringing in wildlife biologists and rehabilitators and conservation enforcement officers to speak to classes on changing regulations, laws, or to share personal stories or career experiences.

Alabama agriscience teachers attending the summer professional development workshop hosted by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Teachers are certified as Hunter Safety Instructors as part of this experience.

 

Yes, hunter safety and wildlife management play a part of FFA each year. The Wildlife Management and Outdoor Recreation FFA Proficiency Award programs showcase students who are engaged in a supervised agricultural experience project where they manage wildlife properties, work for a wildlife management company or land owner, research wildlife topics formally, and many other areas of outdoor recreation and wildlife management.

The Alabama DCNR annually hosts two professional development workshops for agricultural educators. These workshops update and train teachers on safety, sound management practices and prepare them for teaching hunter education by providing hands-on firearm, archery and tree stand safety. In Alabama, hunters born on or after Aug. 1, 1977, are required to take and successfully complete the hunter education course before they are permitted to purchase an Alabama hunting license.

Hunting safety starts early, as you can see from the opening story. Agriscience teachers play a significant role in the future of hunters, anglers and the preservation of Alabama’s natural resources. By exposing Alabama youth to the outdoors and showcasing safe, responsible, knowledgeable and ethical hunting practices, agriculture teachers are protecting our natural resources and encouraging young people to get out of the house and into nature.

The goldenrods are blooming and summer has faded to fall; that first frost is fast approaching. I encourage you to take the time to speak to your local agriscience teacher about opportunities to be a part of the school’s hunter education program and to possibly host a hunter education class for the community. What a great way to bring hunters, landowners and families in your community together. Be safe out there this season and remember to take the time to introduce young people to the outdoors.

For more information on hunter education and hunting statistics in Alabama or how you can become a volunteer hunter education instructor, please visit http://www.outdooralabama.com/hunting. For additional information on Alabama FFA and the opportunities for youth through FFA, please visit www.alabamaffa.org.

 

Andy Chamness serves as the Alabama FFA Executive Secretary and is a certified hunter education instructor and tree stand safety instructor.