A recent edict from Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources related to COVID-19 vaccinations is resulting in the loss of up to half or more of the volunteers in the agency’s Hunter Education Program.
An Oct. 19 email to program participants by Rebecca Lane, DWR’s human resources director, states that Gov. Ralph Northam’s Executive Directive Number Eighteen, effective Sept. 1, 2021, mandates that all Virginia agencies obtain the vaccination status of all employees, contractors, interns and volunteers. She then asks them to provide their vaccination status on an accompanying form.
“If you are not fully vaccinated, we will not be able to utilize you as a volunteer for future events, until Executive Directive Number Eighteen (2021) expires or you become fully vaccinated,” the email reads.
Predictably, this generated a maelstrom of opposition. Some hunter education volunteers, who have requested anonymity estimate hundreds of trained instructors are choosing not to participate. This impacts ongoing programs, scheduled classes and, ultimately, future hunting license sales. Classroom-based instruction and the new, highly promoted “mentor” program, where new hunters go afield with an experienced hunter, are specifically called out.
Gary Martel, DWR’s deputy director, says the agency’s hands are tied. Executive order follow-on guidance from Virginia’s Department of Human Resource Management states volunteers must be treated same as staff [https://www.dhrm.virginia.gov/covid-19].
The governor’s directive outlines weekly testing requirements for unvaccinated personnel, but it appears testing is unavailable or cost-prohibitive for volunteers.
“To comply with testing requirements of the executive order, the agency would have to spend nearly a million dollars a year—with some 1,400-plus volunteers and assuming a 50% vaccination rate,” Martel said. “Obviously we cannot afford this, not to mention the impracticability of making arrangements for testing this many individuals. The result is that our only viable option is to use only vaccinated volunteers at the current time.”
Follow-on guidance also says agencies must begin testing programs using their existing funding but should document expenses in case additional money becomes available.
‘Can’t pick and choose’
Volunteer Leonard Hart of Stafford County, an award-winning, lead hunter education instructor who sometimes coordinates the efforts of some 40 other volunteers across multiple counties, said, “In my case, they wouldn’t have to pay for my test.”
Hart works part time for another state agency and already undergoes weekly testing. He said other full-and part-time state employees like him are “in the same boat. “The only way for them to teach is to turn in their vaccination cards,” he said, something not many are reportedly doing.
Martel said DWR can’t accept tests performed for other employers.
Ryan Brown, DWR’s director, said volunteers are “an extremely valuable part of our agency” and the department quickly realized the guidance could impact all volunteers, beyond those assisting in hunter education. “But,” he said, “we don’t have the discretion to disregard direction that we are given, which in fairness is intended to continue to provide safeguards during a continuing pandemic.”
Stephanie Courter-Walters of Richmond County is an eight-year volunteer. She teaches Basic Hunter Education and plans and participates in workshops with targeted audiences such as new hunters, youth and women.
She and her husband Rick open their farm for classes and even built a DWR-certified range where hunting newcomers could learn firsthand how to handle firearms safely.
“Many instructors who’ve mentored and inspired me have dropped out of the program due to the mandate,” Courter-Walters said. “Among these are experienced lead instructors who train new and existing volunteer instructors. Without their participation, it will be hard to replace the volunteer teams that have dropped out, further damaging the program.”
Courter-Walters said she is finished.
“I feel this requirement to provide personal medical information just to volunteer is unnecessary and invasive. Particularly in this instance where the choice of vaccination should be a private, personal decision between doctor and patient,” she said.
‘None of their business’
Hart says his vaccination status is none of the state’s business. He has a hunter education class scheduled. “I’m the lead instructor and I can’t help now,” he said. “That will leave maybe one instructor to teach it. I’m probably going to cancel it.”
Some instructors privately worry that in-person hunter education classes might go away in Virginia, as they have in a few other states.
Several years ago, Virginia began offering an online course to expand access for people needing hunter education but unable to attend an in-person class. Brown dispels any notion of eliminating in-person training. He favorably recalls his own hunter education course, taken in a class with an instructor. “I would never be in favor of others not having the same option available to them, and neither would anyone that I know here at the agency,” Brown said.
Martel said DWR places high value on its volunteers and that the agency would respect their personal decisions.
Brown said DWR is as disappointed as the volunteer instructors about the impacts to the program.
“We very much look forward to a time when these types of considerations aren’t present and causing difficulty for our volunteers, who give their time willingly for the benefit of the agency and our sportsmen and women,” he said.