Last year the safest for Pa. hunting ever

Lancaster, Pa. — It’s been well documented that hunting is one of the safest pastimes in the outdoors.

Still, not once in 94 years has there been a hunting season in which Pennsylvania hunters haven’t shot each other at least once fatally.

Until last year.

For the first time since the Pennsylvania Game Commission began tracking such things in 1915, no hunters mishandled their firearm or fatally shot one of their brethren in mistake for a game animal.

There were still firearms shootings: 33. But even that number ties 2007 for the fewest accidental firearms accidents during hunting and trapping seasons.

And there were no incidents during fall turkey season and only five during spring gobbler season, also probably a record.

Of the 33 incidents, 10 involved hunting of deer, five for spring gobblers, and one each for foxes, rabbits, ducks and coyotes. The rest were accidental discharges of firearms.

To show just how far hunting safety has improved, consider that in 1931 there were 27 fatalities across the state. And in 1960, 552 hunters either shot themselves or another hunter in non-fatal accidents.

And these were times when the resident hunter population was far lower than it is now.

These grim statistics were racked up well before hunters had to wear any kind of fluorescent colors to stand out or go through any hunting-safety-education courses.

It’s not just here in Pennsylvania that hunting has become the safest on record. Last year also was the safest in New York with 24 incidents, two of them involving fatalities.

Of course, the numbers of hunters in Pennsylvania, like across the nation, are declining. But the accident rate is falling even faster.

The shooting statistics don’t take into account other potential dangers of hunting, such as heart attacks and falling out of treestands.

But the Game Commission, along with partners such as the National Wild Turkey Federation and thousands of volunteer safety education instructors, have worked hard at reducing dangers in the woods and the milestone is worthy of commendation for a job well done.

Despite popular myth, hunting is one of the safest of outdoors pastimes, resulting in less injuries per capita than fishing, golfing, cheerleading, volleyball, bicycle riding, soccer and tackle football, to name a few.

Now, it is becoming even more so.

“I believe it is something to be celebrated,” said Phil Lucken­baugh, hunter education specialist with the Game Commission’s hunter-trapper division, of the new stats.

“We’ve come to this benchmark. Will it continue? Who knows, but it is a significant stepping stone into the future of hunting safety.”

Added Game Commissioner Jay Delaney, of Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County. “We must look at the facts and continue to let the nonhunting public know that hunting is one of the safest sports we have. The statistics prove that.”

Why has hunting become significantly safer in Pennsylvania?

Clearly, making first-time hunters undergo a hunter education class was a major step in the right direction when it became mandatory in 1959. Hunting-related shooting incidents have dropped 80 percent since then.

Another huge factor was requiring hunters, beginning in 1982, to wear fluorescent orange while hunting deer and small game.

Then there was the controversial requirements to make turkey hunters wear orange, even though their quarry can see color.

The first regulations, in 2001, required spring turkey hunters to wear orange while moving through the woods. They were rescinded in 2008 when the NWTF successfully argued they were not making a difference in safety and that turkeys would spot the orange and flee more in the spring than in fall.

In the fall, turkey hunters must wear a minimum of 250 square inches of orange while moving and must have at least 100 square inches visible within 15 feet while stationary. In 2003, a proposal to  require hunters to wear at least 250 square inches at all times during the fall seasons was defeated.

In addition to deer and small game, turkey hunting has been the most prone of hunting scenarios for accidental shootings.

There has been a lot of focus on the new trend for special hunts for youths with mentored adults. There are special hunts now for turkeys, deer, squirrels, groundhogs and coyotes.

There is no minimum age requirement and some have questioned the safety of taking 6-year-olds hunting.

None of the youth hunts in 2012 resulted in an accident. Since 2009, when the first one was held, there have been three shooting incidents from the youngest hunters, none of them resulting in a fatality.

However, 42 percent of all shooting incidents in 2012 involved hunters with 10 or fewer years of hunting experience.

“In my opinion, we need to watch this issue,” Delaney said.

The deployment of advanced hunting courses in recent years is another factor that is driving hunting accidents downward, Lucken­baugh believes.

There are now specialized voluntary courses with online and hands-on instruction offered on bowhunting, treestand safety and hunting turkeys. And a new one on muzzleloading will be trotted out in 2014.

What could be done to bring down the number of hunting mishaps even more?

Luckenbaugh cites continued emphasis on and refining hunter-trapper education courses. He’d also like to see more experienced hunters take advantage of the advanced courses.

For example, he helped conduct one of the turkey hunting classes and heard back from a number of experienced hunters who said they had learned from it. One popular technique was how to use your gun barrel to estimate how far away a turkey is.

When asked what could make hunting safer, Delaney offered, “There is a lot of use of state game lands during the hunting seasons. I think we need to look at the non- hunters using the game land system and do a better job of educating them on the mandatory use of orange.”

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