Young hunters: Safely saving a tradition

It has been a rough season for New Yorks hunters. For the first month, the woods were too thick, the air too warm and the mast crop pretty much nonexistent. Over the next month, cooler weather moved in, leaves dropped, snow fell and the deer began to move a bit more regularly. Still, in comparison to previous years, there seemed to be fewer deer and many hunters returned home with an empty pickup . Finally, in the last few weeks of the season, the snow stuck and so did the rut. Tracks became evident and so did horns, as bucks were on the search for does. Buck contests saw entries soar and meat cutters were finally busy. Still, it was a rough season. Statewide, there were six hunting fatalities this year. Two occurred in the Northern Zone. The accidents end a string of several of the safest hunting seasons on record. There was only one fatality reported statewide last year. As I read over a recent press release from John Bowe, the 4-H Team Coordinator for the Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Warren County; I was struck by the importance of introducing youth of the North Country to the shooting sports. Mr. Bowe detailed how more than a dozen youth from various Warren County communities had recently participated in a 4-H Air Pistol program which featured instruction on safety, sight picture, and the improvement of shooting skills. Participants learned about the responsibility, safety procedures and sound decision making that is essential in the shooting sports. Through the nurturing relationship with an adult., a foundation of all 4-H programs, the participants developed confidence, interpersonal skills, and intergenerational awareness. The program was taught by certified instructors at a range graciously provided by Dunhams Bay Fish & Game Club in Queensbury. The next 4-H Shooting Sports program begins on January 30th. It will be a multi-discipline, fundamentals program that covers rifles, shotguns, muzzleloading, archery, hunting, and bowhunting. The program will be limited to 20 youth at least 12 years of age. There will be a fee of $20 for 4-H members and $25 for non-members. Pre-registration is required by calling John Bowe Cornell University Cooperative Extension at 668-4881 or emailing jfb32@cornell.edu . Currently, New York remains the most restrictive state in the country when it comes to licensing young hunters, with a minimum age of 16 to purchase a Big Game license. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation has watched hunting license sales drop over 10 percent in the past decade, while the average licensed Big Game hunter approaches 53 years of age. However nationwide, the tide may be turning. Despite reports to the contrary, America's oldest outdoor tradition may actually be growing younger according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's ( USF&WS) 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. Of the three major outdoor activities tracked by USF&WS, the federal conservation agency, only hunting showed an increase in the percentage of youth participation. The ratio of young anglers fell more than 5 percent while young wildlife watchers showed the largest decline at 10 percent. Instruction provided at events such as the 4H Shooting Sports Program and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), Families Afield initiative have helped to introduce numerous youngsters to the sport. It has long been recognized that when introducing youths into hunting, earlier is better. According to Chris Dolnack, senior vice president of NSSF, "These new data suggest that hunter attrition between 2001 and 2006 centered on aging hunters. Participation among youngsters hasn't wavered, which makes them a larger subset within the total. That's welcome news because hunters have long emphasized the recruitment of youth as critical to the future of hunting and conservation." Families Afield, launched in 2004 by NSSF, National Wild Turkey Federation and U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, is an education and outreach program intended to help states create hunting opportunities for youth by eliminating unnecessary hunting age restrictions and easing hunter education mandates for first-time hunters. Ultimately, Families Afield seeks to send more new hunters than ever to hunter education classes. Twelve states have already changed laws and regulations to enhance future hunting opportunities for youths and half of those states are already reporting a significant climb in new hunters. Research shows that states without these prohibitions are recruiting more youths into hunting. Data from Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi and Ohio reveal that apprentice hunting license programs brought in nearly 34,000 new hunters in just two years. Remarkably, this surge occurred without a single hunting-related shooting incident, offering further proof that young hunters are the safest hunters. Despite sensational media reports, hunting is a safe pursuit and it continues to get safer due to the Hunter Safety Education programs. According to the National Safety Council, bicyclists and baseball players are far more likely to be injured than those who hunt. And 15 times as many people, roughly 1,500 compared with 100, are likely to die in the United States each year while swimming than they are while hunting. Ironically, it remains a sad fact that the number one cause of hunter fatalities is from drowning, not gunfire. US Coast Guard reports indicate that the majority of these victims fell from a boat while attempting to pee at sea.

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