Youth bill gets the green light By Lee Fahrne Thursday, August 20, 2009 10:09 AM CDT Madison - It was 2005 when Rep. Scott Gunderson, R-Wind Lake, first introduced a bill to lower the legal age for hunting in Wisconsin. After two misfires and years of intense lobbying by legions of outdoor enthusiasts and organizations, kids ages 10 and 11 may now enjoy hunting for small game and migratory waterfowl, as well as big game such as deer and bear. SB 167 passed earlier this year in the Senate on a bipartisan 27-6 vote. Similar legislation worked its way through the Assembly Fish and Wildlife Committee, now chaired by Rep. Ann Hraychuck, D-Balsam Lake. Gov. Jim Doyle signed the bill into law Aug. 13. Previously, the law prohibited hunting and firearm possession by any person under the age of 12. The bipartisan nature of the effort was evident, as Republicans and Democrats lined up in favor of the bill. "The Mentored Hunting bill is a classic example of what can be accomplished when we put partisan politics aside to achieve a common goal," Hraychuck said. Gunderson emphasized safety as the priority in advocating for a lower hunting age. "We made sure all the attention was focused on the youth. That's what the arm's length and one-gun provisions are all about," he said. Gunderson also likes the idea of including older people who might not have had an opportunity to hunt when they were younger. "Let the person experience the hunt, then take hunter safety if they want to stay with it," he said. DNR wardens have not expressed great concern over the safety issue, according to DNR_Warden Supervisor Chuck Horn, of the South Central Region. "The wardens are fine with it," he said. "We don't expect much in the way of enforcement problems. Maybe a possibility of pushing the limit from arm's length to within sight and sound standards, but that shouldn't be a big issue." Horn outlined the major provisions of the bill at the recent Conservation Congress District 9 meeting where enthusiasm for the new law was high. Columbia County delegate Doug Williams said, "This is what we have to do if we're going to get kids out of the house and into the outdoors." Williams was especially supportive of the arm's-length and one-weapon rules. "I'm not in favor of sending kids out to hunt alone at age 10," he said. One important amendment that sporting groups had sought repeatedly has to do with permission to engage in target shooting, a privilege previously denied. They argued that "practice makes perfect" and a hunter who is familiar with his or her firearm and has a good sense of locating the target will make for a safer hunt. The bill abolishes that restriction, as well. The first major attempt to lower the hunting age (to age 8) ran afoul of other legislation introduced at the same time involving a discussion to keep 8-year-olds in booster seats as a safety measure. The contrasting imagery was too much for most legislators, who shot it down by a wide margin. Ironically, some of the staunchest opponents of earlier proposals came not from the anti-hunting crowd, but from hunter safety instructors. While studies show no higher incidence of accidents for this age group in other states, some maintained that youths at that age may not be ready for the responsibility that comes with handling a firearm in a hunting situation. The short window for allowing the new law to go into effect by Sept. 1 prompted DNR officials to submit an administrative rule change request to the Natural Resources Board at its Aug. 12 meeting, one day before the governor was to sign the bill. The change was passed, but not without discussion. NRB member Jonathon Ela was reticent about changing the rule before the governor had an opportunity to sign the bill. He also was concerned that the rule would not go out for public comment before approval of the rule change. "It's a timing thing," said DNR Regulation Policy Specialist Scott Loomans. "We won't have time to get it approved before the Sept. 1 implementation date." Setting up an impromptu NRB meeting is difficult to do, Loomans added. DNR Secretary Matt Frank agreed, saying that if the bill was not signed, the rule would not take effect, and if it was passed, public comment would not be necessary. "Once the bill is signed, it will be the law," he said. Most states allow youths under the age of 12 to hunt. Many do not address the issue, leaving it up to parents to decide when their children are ready to pull the trigger. The push to lower the hunting age connects directly with the decline in the number of young people drawn to hunting and the belief that they're losing contact with the outdoors, according to Hraychuck. "Wisconsin now joins over 40 other states with similar laws that promote young people getting involved in hunting. The mentored hunting program is really about keeping our Wisconsin hunting heritage alive by getting kids out into the woods at an earlier age with their parents or trusted adult," she said. The new Hunting Mentorship Program contains the following requirements/privileges: � Requires the hunter to be within arm's reach of a mentor who is at least 18; � Requires the mentor to have completed the hunter education program or have a birth date before Jan. 1, 1973; � Allows only one firearm or bow between the hunter and mentor; � Allows 10- and 11-year-olds to hunt without having completed hunter education; � The mentor may take only one person hunting at a time; � Sets a list of license fees for 10- and 11-year-olds; � Allows a new hunter of any age to take advantage of the program; � Allows target shooting, including trap shooting or similar sport-shooting activity. Special license fees were included for 10- and 11-year-olds in the bill. There is a $7 fee for each of the following licenses (resident or nonresident): small game, gun deer, Class A bear, archery, wild turkey, and nonresident fur-bearing animal. There is a $5 fee for bonus deer tags and extra turkey tags.