SALT LAKE CITY — Hunting in Utah has been fatality-free for the past five years, even though the state has issued more than 1 million hunting licences during that time.
Officials at the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources say it's all thanks to a program that's been around since the 1950s.
Throughout the spring and summer months, the Utah Hunter Education program trains prospective hunters in elements of firearm safety, wildlife conservation and ethics in order to make them "safe, knowledgeable, responsible and involved," according to the DWR.
But the program was forged in the wake of tragedy. From 1957 to 1959, Utah had 305 hunting-related incidents that resulted in the deaths of 55 people, DWR officials said.
Each incident involved injuries from "the discharge or use of a hunting implement while engaged in hunting activity," according to the International Hunter Education Association. Injuries from vehicle accidents, medical conditions or other emergencies were not reported as hunting incidents.
Utah wasn't alone in sustaining such trends, but wildlife officials determined that many, if not all, of those incidents could have been prevented.
"Everybody knew that if some education and training were provided, they would be a big factor in reducing those incidents," said Ja Eggett, Utah's assistant hunter education coordinator and instructor of 10 years.
Utah's hunter education program began in 1957 and soon became mandatory for all residents under 21 applying for a hunting licence. Though the curriculum has since developed to include wildlife conservation and ethics, early results of the bare-bones firearm safety program were readily observable.
During the program's first 10 years, hunting incidents in Utah plummeted by 85 percent, and incidents involving juveniles — once the majority of all occurrences — dropped by almost 97 percent, according to an incident report from DWR.
Eggett says the hunter education program has helped safety become second-nature for thousands of families where the tradition of hunting extends across generations.
"It's part of that culture where more people are aware, more people watch out for those that aren't safe, and people aren't afraid to say something to somebody if they're not being safe," he said.
Utah's current program now consists of 12 hours of classroom training along with a written exam and a shooting range qualification. Students who pass the course can apply for hunting licences in other states because Utah's program is endorsed by the International Hunter Education Association, an organization that coordinates and standardizes hunter education curriculums across North America.
Utah, however, is one of the only states that requires a certain level of accuracy during the shooting test, Eggett said.
"We probably have a more stringent program than most other places when it comes to what we're requiring students to be able to do," he said.
Students also have the option of substituting the classroom segment of the course for an interactive online course. They still have to pass the same written and shooting tests as students who attend a class, but the online course helps facilitate multiple learning styles, according to Eggett.
"Not every student learns the same way," he said.
The course is required for those born after 1965 in obtaining a hunting licence, though there is no minimum age for enrollment.
For instructors such as LaMar Cox, safety is the top priority of the program, but it hasn't been the only focus during his 42 years of teaching young hunters.
"We try to install in them an ethic — a desire to be a good hunter, a responsible citizen and to respect the rights of others," he said. "I just love being (outdoors), and I want the kids that are coming up to love being out there and to love and respect what I love and respect."
Cox says hunting incident rates were high in the days prior to hunter education largely because some elements of hunting, including safety, were often self-taught for youths in the sport.
"They just handed you a gun and (said), 'Go out and learn by yourself,'" he said. "We had no instruction at all."
Cox is now one of the 450-plus volunteers throughout the state certified as hunter education instructors. To remain certified, each instructor must teach or assist with teaching a class every year. They're trained in the procedures of operating a shooting range and must pass a background check as part of the state's youth protection program, according to Eggett.
The number of instructors has grown to satisfy a steady demand from student applicants, a growth that has helped improve the program over the years, according to Steve Bassett, president of the Utah Hunter Education Instructors Association.
"The more people you have involved with the program, the more information you're going to get out there to the kids," said Bassett, who teaches alongside his two brothers and father. "Everybody's got something to give."
Bassett says most of his students are young prospective hunters, but he also gets non-traditional students who enroll out of curiosity.
"You see a lot of moms that take this class and learn a lot," he said. "I get kids and adults that come into that class that don't ever plan on hunting. And they may never go hunting, but I try to get them excited about spending time in the outdoors."
While the course provides crucial training for beginning hunters, it is far from being all they will ever need to be safe and responsible sportsmen, Bassett says.
"As long as I feel safe when they're passing my class, I turn them over to their parents, and that's really who gets to mentor them from that point on," he said.
Despite an overall increasing number of hunting licenses being sold, hunters are representing a smaller portion of Utah's population. For every 100 Utahns who leave the sport, only 59 replace them — 10 people fewer than the national average, Eggett says.
"Even though our licenses are going up, … we're still losing some ground," he said.
But the demand for hunter education remains high, as do Eggett's hopes for the program's continued success.
"It's a complete part of my life," he said. "We feel like we're doing a good service for the hunters and citizens of Utah, and I'm happy to be a part of that. We are making a difference."
Those wishing to enroll in the program can visit wildlife.utah.gov to learn more.