Missouri Hunter Apprentice Program Opens Doors

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Two-year exemption from hunter education requirement encourages mentorship.

The sights and sounds of wild turkeys strutting and gobbling send chills down a high-school senior's spine. Her father would take her turkey hunting, but she would have to complete a hunter-education class first. It is easier to enjoy the outdoors through television, so she never experiences the spine-tingling excitement of turkey hunting first-hand.

A young man has fond memories of hunting rabbits with his dad and uncles. He wants to show his friends how much fun it is, but none of them are hunter-education certified. Because they are not willing to take a class to try a new hobby, the man sells his shotgun and joins his friends playing video games.

A busy professional is fascinated with the partnership between hunters and their highly trained dogs. His pet Labrador retriever's obsession with fetching sticks makes him wonder if the dog is a natural hunter. A friend offers to take him and his dog duck hunting, but when he tries to buy a hunting permit he learns he must complete a 10-hours hunter-education course first. He takes up golf instead.

Those are a few of the scenarios that contribute to the national trend away from hunting and other traditional outdoor pursuits. Professional conservationists despair at these and other stories. They know that many such individual tales are behind long-term attrition in the community that created the American conservation movement 150 years ago. They wonder where America will find future generations of conservationists who can match hunters’ intimate knowledge of nature and their strong emotional stake in protecting it for future generations.

To help reverse the trend away from hunting, the Missouri Conservation Commission created the Apprentice Hunter Authorization. The $10 annual authorization is not a hunting permit. Rather, it is a permit to buy hunting permits.

Missouri's Wildlife Code requires anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 1967, to pass an approved hunter education course before purchasing a firearms hunting permit. You must be at least 11 years old to become hunter-education certified. Furthermore, any adult who goes afield to help a youth who hunts with a youth permit also must be hunter-education certified.

Mandatory hunter education has paid enormous dividends, according to Conservation Department Hunter Education Coordinator Tony Legg. He says the systematic inculcation of safety awareness and hunting ethics has decreased firearms-related hunting accidents by 70 percent in a little over 20 years.

However, participation in hunting also has declined nationwide over the past 20 years. Surveys show this decline has resulted from a variety of factors, one of which is barriers to entry-level hunters.

"The Conservation Commission recognizes the need to remove barriers to hunting," said John Hoskins, director of the Missouri Department of Conservation. "Missouri leads the nation in recruiting new hunters, but we think we can do an even better job."

Hoskins said the Conservation Department cannot do anything about the fact that more and more people live in cities. Likewise, it cannot change the fact that many people have less leisure time to learn new skills and find hunting spots. He said the agency will not give up hard-won gains in hunting safety, but it is committed to making responsible accommodations to keep hunting within the grasp of young Missourians.

Conservation Commission Chairman William F. "Chip"” McGeehan said one way to do this is to give potential hunters a reasonable opportunity to try hunting before they are asked to commit time to hunter education.

The Apprentice Hunter Authorization is available to residents and nonresidents 16 and older for two consecutive years. During that time, authorization holders can buy any firearms hunting permit. They must hunt in the immediate presence of a licensed hunter age 21 or older. This means that adult mentors must be close enough for normal conversation, without shouting. Mentors must be hunter-education certified, regardless of age.

The two-year period includes two permit years, from March 1 through the last day of February. Hunters who wait until autumn to buy their first Apprentice Hunter Authorization can only participate in the program until the end of the following permit year. This would mean they could only hunt in one spring turkey season before taking a hunter education class.

McGeehan said the Apprentice Hunter Authorization creates unprecedented opportunities for hunting mentorship.

"Mentoring is the key," he said. "We have opened the door, but it will take committed adults to introduce family and friends to a pastime that is rooted in their history and in their hearts. Hunters hold the key to maintaining a rich, safe hunting tradition."

McGeehan and Hoskins encourage hunters to take the opportunity to pass on their knowledge of such practical matters as firearms safety, hunting ethics, marksmanship, hunting equipment and clothing, wildlife behavior and field dressing and cooking of game.

For more information, visit mdc.mo.gov/hunt/turkey/sprturk/.