Staying alive: Has hunter education program made sport safer?

Is state hunter's ed program responsible for safer sport?

HARLINGEN — Back in the day, you could have said hunting in Texas wasn’t very safe for either man or beast.

Records which experts refer to as “hunting incidents” started being kept by the National Rifle Association in the late 1940s, just as sport shooting began to blossom in the post-war United States.

What the newly accumulating data showed was shooters going into the field were being shadowed by a disturbingly high rate of often fatal gun accidents.

“Mostly it was veterans returning from World War II, with disposable income in the ‘50s, with families where people were going back to the woods, their ‘Back 40,’ and hunting,” said Steve Hall, hunting education coordinator at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

“There were higher incident rates because there wasn’t such awareness. With the NRA hunter safety rules came an evolution of the states kind of going, ‘Geez, we’ve got a problem out there, let’s start addressing it.’”

The Texas response to this growing problem was to attack the issue over time via youth hunters with the Hunter Education Program, which was instituted as a voluntary safety class in 1972 and made mandatory in 1988.

It seems it’s no coincidence that today, with more than 1.3 million hunters having gone through the program, the annual fatality and accident rates among Texas hunters have experienced phenomenal drops even as total hunter numbers remain high with 1.2 million licenses sold last year.

Accidents down

The state’s youth hunter education program was instituted on a voluntary basis in 1972 and then made mandatory in 1988. Without the class, no one born after Sept. 2, 1971, can legally hunt in Texas.

A “Texas Hunting Incident Data” study of fatalities and hunting accidents from 1966 through 2018 gives an indication of the severity of the accident rates around 50 years ago.

Between 1966 and 1972, the year the state offered a volunteer youth hunting program, 185 Texas hunters were killed in accidents statewide, or an average of 26 per year.

Over that same period, 435 non-fatal hunting accidents were recorded in the state, or about 62 a year.

Those numbers began to drop almost simultaneously with the adoption of a voluntary hunter education program in 1972.

For example, the fatality rate during the voluntary period was 1.85 per 100,000 hunting licenses issued, and the incident rate was 7.5 per 100,000 licenses.

Since hunter education became mandatory, the fatality rate has fallen to 0.44 per 100,000 licenses and the incident rate has dropped to 3.5 per 100,000.

“It’s been nothing but a great success,” said Texas Game Warden Ira Zuniga. “We’re having families get together and take the course together so the whole family can all be on the same page and being part of conservation.

“What happens is if a person gets a citation for a hunter education violation, the way it’s written is the individual gets 90 days by the JP (Justice of the Peace) to take the course, so in essence it forces the individual to take the course and once the individual completes the course, he or she just takes that information to the judge and it’s dismissed with possibly just court fees,” he added. “So all in all, it’s a win-win situation.”

Colorado’s lead

The trigger for Texas to move forward with a state hunter education program was provided by Colorado, which passed three watershed hunting rules in 1970 which other states quickly adopted.

Outside of Alaska, Colorado even today is perhaps the most important big-game hunting destination in the United States. After Colorado passed its laws mandating blaze orange clothing for deer and elk rifle hunters, no loaded firearms in vehicles and mandatory hunter education, Texas followed suit.

“That’s kind of what I would call the ‘Big Three,’ in hunter safety types of regs,” TPWD’s Hall said. “They went from 20- and 30-plus incidents a year to almost zero, two to five incidents a year, and they went to zero fatalities for many years, although they’ve had a few since. Colorado’s law was kind of the model for the time.”

To hunt in Colorado from 1970 on, Texan hunters under 21 years of age needed to pass a hunter education course, so Texas provided one.

“So if they were going to Colorado they needed hunter ed, so all of a sudden they had to take it and they wanted obviously to take it here before they went off to Colorado,” Hall said.

Hunting ethics

In 2018, just three fatalities and 14 non-fatal accidents were recorded statewide, although one of the latter incidents did occur in Cameron County.

“Victim carelessly discharged his shotgun toward his foot as he was rising from his lay-down position to shoot at some incoming ducks,” the TPWD report reads. “He had taken his safety off just prior to rising up.”

Hunter safety is still a big part of the hunter education program, but its success has brought regulatory imitations. The state offers a Boating Education Program for young mariners, and the hunting ed program itself has been expanded.

“It’s what we call Hunting 101, which is an advanced hunter education,” Hall said, adding there are courses available for Bowhunting 101, Turkey Hunting 101, Waterfowl Hunting 101, Deer Hunting 101 and Hog Hunting 101.

“In Turkey Hunting 101 we’re really going to learn about turkey behavior, habitat and their natural history, but we’re also going to learn how to shoot ‘em and take care of the meat and make a few good recipes out of it,” Hall said. “In other words, Turkey Hunting 101 is your next step if that’s what you want to do.”

Beyond the nuts-and-bolts of how to hunt specific game species and to do it safely, Hall said the very concept of hunter education is evolving beyond its original scope, using what TPWD calls the “Four Cs” to illustrate a deeper significance for hunters to consider.

“Capable, careful, courteous and considerate — you try to give kids a way to remember it,” he said.

Hall said TWPD also is looking at reaching even more potential hunters in Texas, and he spitballs the possibility of offering a Modern Sporting Rifle 101 class at a shooting range.

“It would be full,” he said. “People bought ‘em and they got ‘em, but they really need to learn how to use them.”

These rifles, semi-automatic AR-15s or variants, are the most popular guns used in hog hunting in Texas with about one-third of hunters employing them now, he said.

“But they’ve got to become more and more familiar and do better, gun control aside and all that,” Hall said. “Bottom line is they’re a tool for hunting, and as a tool for hunting, from a responsibility standpoint, we want them to understand the tool, be safe with the tool, and use it competently to take game.”


Texas Hunt Incident Data

Year Fatalities Non-Fatal All accidents

1966 28 53 81

1967 23 70 93

1968 37 68 105

1969 24 68 92

1970 19 53 72

2014 2 24 26

2015 2 18 20

2016 5 19 24

2017 2 19 21

2018 3 14 17

Note: Voluntary hunter education began in 1972. Mandatory hunter education began in 1988.

Source: Texas Hunting Incident Analysis 2018

Hunting incident rates

Hunting Incident Rate (Avg.) during Voluntary program: 7.5 per 100,000 hunting licenses issued

Hunting Incident Rate (Avg.) during Mandatory program: 3.5 per 100,000 hunting licenses issued

Hunting Fatality Rate (Avg.) during Voluntary program: 1.85 per 100,000 hunting licenses issued

Hunting Fatality Rate (Avg.) during Mandatory program: 0.44 per 100,000 hunting licenses issued

Find a Hunter Education Program class

TPWD website:

Participants in a hunter education online only program must be at least 17 years old. At instructor-led courses, kids have to be a minimum of 9 years old.

To find a class in your area, go to the TPWD hunter education program page online and access the education system.

Cost of participating in the six-hour Hunter Education Program is $15.