Washington State lawmakers consider minimum age for lone hunters

Olympia, Wash. (AP) — Pamela Almli was less than an hour into a
hike on the popular Sauk Mountain Trail in Skagit County when she
was killed by a 14-year-old hunter who thought she was a bear.

The Aug. 2 accident was a rarity – Almli was the first
non-hunter killed by a hunter in Washington in more than 25 years –
but lawmakers are considering a handful of ways to increase outdoor
safety.

One proposal would reinstate a law that hunters under 14 be
accompanied by an experienced adult. The shooter in Almli’s death
was hunting with his 16-year-old brother.

Another measure would require hikers to wear bright “hiker’s
orange” clothing. A third bill would make the minimum age for
hunting alone 16.

“My husband and I do a lot of hiking … so we were very shocked
when we heard about this horrible situation,” said Sen. Jeanne
Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, sponsor of the bill raising the solo
hunting age to 16. “We thought very personally about our safety,
and our dog’s safety, and our friends’ safety, and other family
members’ safety.”

Advocates of setting a minimum age for hunting alone say it is
only common sense. But opponents say a hunter’s experience, not
age, matters most.

Current law allows anyone to hunt alone, so long as they have
passed a state-certified safety course. Until 1994, state
regulations required solo hunters to be at least 14. But that
requirement was inadvertently eliminated by the Legislature, said
Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, sponsor of the bill reinstating the
solo hunting age to 14.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has repeatedly asked
the Legislature to reinstate the original rule on numerous
occasions, but lawmakers have been reluctant to act, said Mik
Mikitik, the department’s hunter education coordinator.

Washington’s youth hunting regulations buck national trends,
said Douglas Shinkle, who tracks sportsmen’s issues for the
National Conference of State Legislatures.

Most states encourage supervised youth hunting – with minimum
ages as a safety measure – to encourage youth participation in the
sport and to keep license fees flowing into wildlife department
budgets as the overall number of hunters declines.

In Washington, not all lawmakers support the idea of changing
the rules in the emotional time following Almli’s death.

“The urban people tend to get a little nervous about the idea of
hunting,” said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam,
adding see isn’t sure any of the bills have enough support to
pass.

A few months after Almli’s death, Tacoma resident Juan Cortez
was shot while picking bear grass in the Gifford Pinchot National
Forest by a 55-year-old elk hunter.

This example, opponents of the hunting regulation say, proves
age isn’t always what matters most when judging the safety of a
hunter.

“If I learn to drive at 35 or if I learn to drive at 17, I’m
still inexperienced and a beginner,” said Mikitik.

In years past the National Rifle Association lobbied against
attempts to reinstate the old law, but so far they have been silent
this year. Phone calls to the NRA were not returned.

Ed Owens, a lobbyist who works for sportsmen’s groups, said that
if the youth hunting bills gain significant momentum, he expects
they’ll push back.

Hikers groups, meanwhile, oppose any “hiker’s orange”
requirement.

“Are you really going to require every single hiker and every
tourist who visits Mt. Baker Snoqualmie Forrest to wear hunter
orange?” asked Andrew Engelson, editor of Washington Trails
magazine.

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