Senate to debate ‘age 8’ hunting bill

By Dean
Bortz
Editor

Madison — The youth hunting bill – Assembly Bill 586 – takes one
step closer to the governor’s desk this week with a Senate hearing
that was to have taken place Wednesday, Jan. 11 at the state
Capitol.

One bill supporter expects some of that testimony at the Senate
hearing to further outline the expectations of what has become
known as the Families Afield Bill. Larry Bonde, of Manitowoc, is a
Conservation Congress delegate who served for four years as
chairman of the Congress Outdoor Heritage Committee. During that
time, Bonde researched safety factors tied to a lower hunting age,
and then pushed for a change in Wisconsin’s 12-year-old minimum
hunting age.

In meetings and Assembly hearings leading up to this week’s
Senate hearing, bill opponents have said any change in the hunting
age would put hunter recruitment ahead of safety.

Bonde noted that even some people who support the bill don’t see
it as a “cure-all” for the hunter recruitment problem.

“It shouldn’t be sold as that,” Bonde said. “The hunter
recruitment issue is a big, complex puzzle. This is just one piece
of that, and each piece has to be looked at very closely.”

Bonde and Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, expect the bill to meet
stiff opposition in the hearing. Sen. Russ Decker, D-Weston,
believes otherwise. Decker has worked on a reduced hunting age for
about two years. He expects AB 586 to pass the Senate.

“I heard a lot more (opposition) a year ago when I introduced
10-year-old hunting,” Decker said. “I think the opposition has
calmed down quite a bit. This is one firearm, within arm’s reach of
a mentor – once that settled in a little bit, I think people felt
more comfortable with it.

“I don’t know what will happen in the Senate. It hasn’t been a
real hot topic over here. I thought 10 would have been a good age,
but I’m OK with 8,” Decker said.

Kedzie is chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources
and Transportation, which will offer the Jan. 11 hearing at 10 a.m.
in Room 300 Southeast of the state Capitol. Kedzie wasn’t available
for comment, but his chief of staff, Dan Johnson, sounded a bit
concerned last week.

“This could turn into a hunter vs. non-hunter issue (on both
sides of the aisle), as some may feel that 8 years old is far too
young, but it’s really too early to predict,” Johnson said.
“Previously, some Democrats proposed lowering it to 10, and some
Republicans offered a proposal for no age limit, so perhaps age 8
is viewed as some type of compromise, I don’t know.”

Bonde expects the bill to be contested, but he said support from
the National Wild Turkey Federation, National Shooting Sports
Foundation, and the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association should help
carry the bill. He said national groups can demonstrate that
hunters younger than age 12 in other states show a similar safety
record to Wisconsin’s age 12 hunter education graduates.

“It might have a tough go in the Senate,” Bonde said. “This has
really ticked off some hunter education folks. If I were king for a
day, there wouldn’t be a minimum age. There is no data to suggest
that no minimum age is (less safe).

“Wisconsin is a traditional state. We’ve been stuck in this
12-year-old age for so long that we don’t understand that most of
the other states either have no minimum hunting age or have a lower
hunting age – and they’ve always had it. They aren’t just changing
now. You only have to look at how hunters look at the nine-day deer
season to realize that we are very set in tradition.

“We perceive that people in other states don’t start hunting
until age 12. That’s not the case,” Bonde said. “I found out just
six months ago that most states have always had a very low hunting
age, or never had a minimum age.

“Even if we pass this bill, it still makes Wisconsin one of the
most restrictive states for youth hunting. I think it is a very
good bill,” he said.

Bonde has been working on lowering the hunting age for about
four years. He still serves on the Outdoor Heritage Committee, but
is no longer chairman, now that he serves as the Conservation
Congress secretary. He said he has fielded a lot of phone calls
over the years on this issue.

“I have a lot of scars,” he said, but added that he has slowly
changed minds, too, once he gets to pass on his research.

“I do believe it’s going to go. There is a lot of organized
support, but I do expect to hear opposition at the (Senate)
hearing. The people who are opposed feel they beat this down at the
(2005) spring hearing, but the Assembly did a good job of listening
to the people. The Assembly took the concerns from the spring
hearings and addressed those concerns by adding restrictions to
this legislation,” Bonde said.

Reduced safety is one of the biggest concerns, but some
opponents also have said that lowering the hunting age will just
give some parents or mentors a way to buy “extra tags” to fill.

“The bottom line is you can’t legislate ethics,” Bonde said. “If
someone wants to use this legislation for an extra tag, they
probably already are doing something like buying a tag for a friend
or family member who doesn’t hunt.”

Bonde said parents or mentors sacrifice their own success in
order to introduce kids to hunting, fishing, or trapping.

“Most people I talk to who have kids of their own who hunt, or
who have mentored kids into hunting, agree with me – when I first
started mentoring my kids for hunting, my success went way down,”
Bonde said. “It takes a lot of sacrifice to take a child in the
woods, have them within arm’s reach, and make sure he or she is
ready when an animal comes his or her way. The kids almost always
get the best spots.”

If the Senate passes the bill, Johnson said he has not been told
how Gov. Jim Doyle will react to the legislation. Doyle would have
to sign the bill before it could become law. Bonde believes Doyle
would sign the bill.

“I honestly don’t know what the governor would do, but I have
heard he may look to (DNR) Secretary (Scott) Hassett for some
direction if it gets to his desk,” Johnson said.

Bonde said NWTF and WBHA members have been visiting senators and
believe “the votes are there” to pass the bill.

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