Volunteer instructors, hunters’ dedication behind fatality-free gun-deer season
MADISON – Hunting history repeated itself in Wisconsin 2010 – and the head of the state’s hunter education program is looking for a repeat performance in 2011.
“Wisconsin ended its 2010 gun-deer season free of hunter fatalities,” Department of Natural Resources conservation warden and longtime hunter education program leader Tim Lawhern said. “This is a feat first — and last — seen in 1974.
Lawhern says the 2010 hunting success story has a lot to do with the effectiveness of the state’s volunteer instructors of hunter safety education programs and hunters themselves for their dedication to safety.
“This also is a good reminder for hunters to sign up for their required hunter safety classes – now, “ Lawhern said. “Classes fill very fast and very few are offered between October and December. That’s when our volunteer instructors are hunting, too.”
Overall, there were 12 hunting incidents during the nine-day gun season. For the families of the injured hunters, Lawhern says 2010 didn’t feel like a success. “Any shooting incident is one too many,” Lawhern said. “And we wish them all speedy recoveries.”
The agency only tracks firearm-related incidents and does not keep track of deaths or injuries due to heart attacks, tree stand falls or other causes.
Lawhern, who also serves as the president of the International Hunter Education Association, says several factors were behind the successful 2010 hunt.
Classroom and technology big in the woods
High on Lawhern’s list as big factors behind the second-only fatal-free season in Wisconsin’s history of the gun-deer hunt is the participation in the DNR Hunter Education Program – which began as hunter safety classes in 1967.
“The year before hunter education began in Wisconsin, the incident rate was 44 injuries for every 100,000 hunters,” Lawhern said, adding the 1967 course was six hours long and covered firearm safety only.
Things have changed since 1967.
“Since that time, we have seen things like the creation of opening and closing hours for hunting, mandatory blaze orange for hunters, full safety harnesses, firearm restrictions, global positioning satellite devices, cell phones and more,” he said. “All of these have contributed to the increased safety for hunters.”
Wisconsin’s hunter education certification program became mandatory for all hunters born or after Jan. 1, 1973 in 1985. That meant any hunter 12, the youngest legal hunter, beginning in 1985 had to complete the hunter education program.
“We have certified almost one million graduates. Our program has led the way both nationally – and internationally – with improved delivery, curriculum and outreach regarding safe and responsible hunting,” Lawhern said of the program taught by volunteer instructors statewide. Wisconsin’s hunter education program has had many firsts, including the nation’s first online course, instructor academy and a junior instructor program.
“The hunter education program also has evolved into more topics including knowledge, responsibility and ethics,” he said.
While the fatal-free season is a victory for safety, Lawhern says it wasn’t a complete surprise.
Predicting the fatal-free season, and the four rules of firearm safety
Lawhern says considering all the progress made in hunting, along with looking at the records behind every shooting incident of past seasons, made it easy to predict the fatal-free season was coming.
“We know a tremendous amount about hunting incidents. We can predict who is going to be shot. We can predict how many, where and what they are going to be doing at that moment,” Lawhern said. “We just don’t have the names and addresses.”
Lawhern’s analysis shows about one-third to one-half of all injuries is related to deer drives. The self-inflicted injuries will be one-third to one half of all the total of the gun-deer season.
“We also know the shooters younger than 18 will make up about 20 to 30 percent of the shooting injuries, though this past season it was less than that. The vast majority will occur on private land and half will happen on opening weekend,” he said. “Ultimately, nearly all are linked to a violation of one or more of the four basic rules of firearm safety – treat every firearm as if it is loaded, always point the muzzle in a safe direction, be certain of your target and what’s beyond, and keep your finger outside the trigger guard until you are ready to shoot.”
And, Lawhern says, the most significant contributors to hunting incidents are those 35 and older – the hunters not covered by the mandatory hunter education course rule. “All hunters should consider taking the hunter education certification course – no matter the age.”
Safety doesn’t take breaks
“Our hunter education program is revered as one of, if not the best in the country,” Lawhern said, adding most of the volunteer instructors have never experienced a gun-deer season free of fatalities. “Those instructors, along with other factors, are major contributors to the success and safety of hunting.”
The course helps all hunters to make safety a habit.
“Safety does not take a vacation. Either you are safe all the time, every time, or you are not. You are only as safe as your next hunt,” he said.
Lawhern says he hopes those who haven’t completed the hunter education certification course will make it a priority in 2011 to make the next gun-deer season the third fatal-free in the state’s history.
“Let’s not wait until 36 years. Let’s repeat this safety success story in 2011,” Lawhern said. “A good start on that goal is to make sure you have completed your hunter safety course now so you can enjoy the fall deer season.”
More information about hunter safety education is available on the DNR website.