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Safe Hunting Year

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By Joe Wilkinson
Iowa Department of Natural Resources

As all the gear gets packed away until next fall, Iowa hunters can look back at an overall safe hunting year. While 2008 did record a firearm-related hunting death—in Hamilton County in September-and nearly a dozen injuries, the state remains on pace to mark the safest hunting decade on record.

With somewhere around 300,000 of us holding hunting licenses or landowner tags, that means quite a crowd on opening day and plenty of other overcast dawns in the duck blind, frosty mornings in the upland switchgrass...or days spent crunching through snow after whitetail deer. And while the incidents continue on a path that is about as low as you can get, there is still room for improvement.
“Some of the main causes of incidents continue to be shooting at running deer and not properly identifying your target...and just not being able to see your hunting partners out there; especially this past fall with all the vegetation; extra corn in the fields,” lists Megan Wisecup, recreational programs safety supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources.

She would like to see the day when that annual report card shows ‘zeroes’ all the way around. There have been three years, since 2000, with no fatalities recorded. Otherwise, one or two firearms hunting-related deaths still occur in a year...with the injuries ranging in the low to mid teens. Archery related incidents are tallied separately. Even one death, of course, is too many. Still, hunter safety is moving in the right direction, when compared to the 1960s and early ‘70s. Then, it was not uncommon to have 10 to 12 deaths per year attributed to hunting, along with 80 to 100 injuries. In 1965, 20 hunters died.

No surprise, then, that hunter education was promoted heavily in the late 60s: becoming mandatory in the early 1980s. Now, about 11,000 students—ranging from sub-teens to college students to parents sitting in as their kids go through—take the 10-hour course each year. Just about 2000 volunteers help instruct them. “I definitely see our hunter education program as one of the main components. I can see a significant difference in the trends,” stresses Wisecup. “It’s because of the awareness and education points being out there.”

Rather than just an entry in a year-end report, an incident now re-appears as a teaching tool. Students might be placed in a ‘shoot...don’t shoot’ situation on an outdoor safety trail. They practice handing over their gun, as they cross a fence; how to check to see if it’s unloaded...that the safety is on...and that the muzzle is pointed in a safe direction. Each skill helps lower the year end numbers that occur when a hurried response or momentary lapse resulted in an injury or worse.

There are other factors tied to the drop in hunter injuries and deaths. The rise in blaze orange clothing is an obvious plus. Mandatory for years for firearm deer hunters, it is required for upland bird hunters, too. That bright orange showing through the underbrush or across a field can be a lifesaver, as a bird or buck breaks from the underbrush.

Also, hunter numbers have dipped noticeably in the last 40 years in Iowa; though the drop in hunting incidents is many times below that falloff in participants. With a solid safety record to build on, the next step is to retain or recruit more active hunters. “One of the biggest causes of the decline is time,” explains Wisecup. With all the scheduled activities in society today, it makes it real hard to compete; to get people out into these traditional sports.”

Iowa, though, is making good inroads in the past couple years with the Scholastic Clay Target Program and by introducing archery in schools. Iowa just certified its 100th school in the archery program. Last year, in the clay target competition took aim at a half million clays. Schools organize in a team event setup; with end of the year competition in a state meet; much like other sports. “We are trying to develop plans for the whole department to get involved in,” says Wisecup. “Not just young people, but other new hunters and shooters as well.”
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