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27
Discussion softens opposition to lower hunting age

Should 10-year olds be allowed to hunt in Wisconsin?
My initial reaction was an adamant "No!"
Then, as I discussed the issue, my stand began to soften, which is the expectation of state legislators who are bent on changing the state's minimum age at which a person legally can begin hunting.

Currently, a youngster must be at least 12 years old and have completed a hunter safety course before a hunting license can be obtained. All hunting between the ages of 12 and 14 must be under adult supervision.

The legislation in its current form would allow a 10-year-old to carry a gun and hunt under the supervision of an adult.

"Twenty-eight states do not have a minimum age for hunting," says State Sen. Russ Decker, D-Schofield, a sponsor of the Family Outdoor Recreation Act legislation, which contains the age change.

"The Department of Natural Resources has a neutral position on this issue," said Tim Lawhern, the agency's hunter education administrator.

However, the DNR has developed a list of eight "talking points" when the subject is broached, he said. Those points, in brief, include:
• Lowering the hunting age to 10 will be a change in the state's hunting tradition.

• It might not change significantly the number of people who hunt.

• Statistically, the safest age group of hunters nationwide are those up to age 15 when accompanied by an adult. The most unsafe group is that same age bracket when group hunting with people their own age. Parental commitment to supervision is a key ingredient.

• Allowing younger participation provides for quality family time.

• Hunting promotes greater appreciation for the natural world.

• No age-related hunting problems are reported in the 28 states with a lower minimum age than Wisconsin.

• "Getting our kids involved in the natural world is important" when building "knowledgeable conservation stewards for tomorrow."
• Hunting skills "are time-proven wholesome, character building and fun activities."
Even though the DNR is neutral, Lawhern personally believes "there's absolutely no reason not to" lower the minimum age to 10.

Lawhern, 49, is a 21-year resident of Wisconsin but a native of Tennessee where there is no minimum age for hunters. "I began hunting at age 7," he said. "If I hadn't, I might not have hunted at all. My parents were with me until age 14."
Supporters of the legislation point out that youngsters are being drawn into a wide variety of outdoor activities at ever earlier ages.

"Ask any soccer mom," Lawhern says, "at what age she has to get her child into soccer if that child is going to be any good at soccer ... and she'll probably tell you age 7."
Hunting with a gun isn't the same as kicking a soccer ball, however. For that reason, Lawhern is adamant that adult supervision of youthful hunters is critical.

"Wisconsin's definition of 'under supervision' is within sight or sound," he said. "I think a better definition would be within lunge, reach or grasp."
There also is a question whether the requirement for a 12-year-old to have completed a hunter safety course also will be a requisite for the 10-year-old hunter. "That's still to be determined" by the legislation, Lawhern said.

Lawhern's position is that the state should not make family participation in hunting difficult.

"There's nothing that says age 10 is the magic number," he says. "I say (determining the age at which to begin hunting) is up to the parent. If (the parent) determines their child is mature enough, then why should (the DNR) stand in their way?"
Families with a strong hunting tradition will view a lower hunting age as a welcome opportunity while the nonhunting public will need convincing the step is safe and appropriate.

This is, after all, a lethal weapon, not a golf club that we're putting in the hands and mind of a sub-teenager.

As overall hunting accident statistics indicate, the individuals most at-risk hunting with a 10-year-old likely will be the family members themselves.

Jim Lee is an outdoor writer for Gannett Wisconsin Newspapers. He may be reached at 715-845-0605 or by e-mail at jlee@wdhprint.com.

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