Too young to hunt deer? Not in Wisconsin

By Tony Kennedy, Star Tribune 

If all goes as planned for freshman legislator Rob Stafsholt, Wisconsin’s traditional gun deer hunting season will open Saturday with a twist that’s raising concern around the country.

Under legislation that Gov. Scott Walker is expected to sign into law this week, kids of any age will be allowed to hunt deer and carry their own gun when accompanied by an adult — no training required. Previously, kids had to be at least 10 years old to hunt with a mentor and the two had to share a weapon.

“To allow … a toddler, a 2-year-old [to carry a gun], and I’m not being hyperbolic because someone will allow it, is dangerous,” Rep. Katrina Shankland of Stevens Point said last week in a story that ran in the New York Times.

Shankland said in an interview Friday that the new law will dilute safety for the stated purpose of strengthening Wisconsin’s outdoor heritage. Like Minnesota, Wisconsin hasn’t been able to recruit enough new deer hunters to offset the ranks of older hunters who are leaving the sport. Meanwhile, it’s not fair to expose the hundreds of thousands of hunters who remain passionate about deer hunting to a new risk, she said.

Stafsholt, a Republican from New Richmond, said widespread support for his bill underscores the trust Wisconsinites have in a hunting culture that’s already family-based. Parents are pragmatic and they know best when a youngster is ready to join the hunt, he said. Having each mentored hunter within arm’s reach — still a requirement under the proposed new law — will keep everyone safe, he said.

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In addition, he said, the revision doesn’t change other aspects of youth hunting, including formal hunter education requirements starting at age 12.

“This leaves it to the family,’’ Stafsholt said. “That’s how I learned.”

The measure passed the Wisconsin Legislature this year with little adieu. The same bill last year, carried by a different lawmaker, never got close to passage. Critics ripped it as irresponsible in refrains that still echo on Stafsholt’s Facebook page.

“I for one am against this push for younger and younger,” one commenter said on Stafsholt’s Facebook page. “I started going to deer camp at age 7 or 8, couldn’t carry till 12, it was all good.”

In Racine, Wis., the editorial page of the Journal Times newspaper offered a reminder that hunting accidents and fatalities in Wisconsin have declined in the past decade while the mentored hunt program required kids to be at least 10 years old.

“ ‘Parental control’ may be a catchy buzzword, but we would no more like to see it applied to hunting than we would to parents who would decide that their 10-year-olds are fully capable of driving a car on our roads and highways,” the editorial said.

Stafsholt said that of 42 states with mentored hunt programs, 34 don’t set a minumum age. In addition, Wisconsin was one of only four of the 42 states to limit the mentor and youth hunter to a single gun. In Minnesota, kids must be at least 10 to go on a mentored deer hunt, but they can carry their own weapon when in arm’s reach of an adult.

Rob Doar of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus said his group has shown no interest in changing Minnesota’s law. The state has sound policy on hunter safety, Doar said, and allowing kids under the age of 10 to hunt deer wouldn’t measurably boost overall hunter recruitment.

“It’s not something we plan on pursuing here,’’ he said.

Besides, in Minnesota kids of any age already can hunt small game if they are with a mentoring adult, Doar said.

Jason Pommier, who lives in North Branch on the northern edge of the metro area, said he sees no problem with Wisconsin dropping the age limit on mentored deer hunts. Parents aren’t going to place a child in a deer stand if the child isn’t ready to safely make a lethal shot, he said.

Besides, he said, kids have to be physically strong enough to handle a rifle or shotgun large enough to take down a deer — a practical limitation in itself. Pommier’s own 10-year-old son, Evan, shot his first deer last week with a .410 shotgun.

“Every kid is different,’’ Pommier said. “Some aren’t ready, even at age 10.”

But giving parents the option of introducing young children to deer hunting is a good tool to get more kids hooked, he said.

On average, about 20,000 Minnesotans hunt whitetails in Wisconsin, where the deer population this year is considered bountiful.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources didn’t take a position on the mentored hunt bill, and a spokesman for the agency declined to comment for this story. According to DNR data, gun deer license sales in the state declined more than 7 percent between 2006 and 2016. Last year, 598,867 people bought a Wisconsin deer license by the end of the nine-day gun hunt season.

Jon Paurus, education coordinator for the Minnesota DNR, said he doesn’t anticipate Wisconsin having problems once the minimum age for mentored hunts is dropped. “Parents who want kids involved are going to do it right,’’ Paurus said.

Paurus didn’t comment on whether lowering the minimum age for youth on mentored deer hunts would boost recruitment. He did say that hunting education coordinators in states beyond Minnesota and Wisconsin also are seeing a decline in deer hunting participation.