Mentored hunter age fight unfolds

Harrisburg — By publishing a proposed regulation change to the mentored youth hunter program ahead of their Jan. 25-27 meeting here, game commissioners touched off a firestorm of opposition.

As a result, many opponents of the change – establishing a minimum age of 9 for mentored youth to take deer or turkeys – said they would testify and challenge commissioners at this month’s session.

According to the commentary in the meeting agenda, “The commission has received extensive public comment regarding concern over the appropriateness of young children’s abilities to utilize high-powered firearms to harvest big game, as well as allegations of adults utilizing the harvest tags of mentored youth unlawfully.

“Wildlife conservation officers have encountered evidence of the allegations in several enforcement operations this past hunting season. The removal of eligibility for mentored youth under the age of 9 to harvest big game is intended to minimize both concerns expressed in public comment.” 

In a statement on its website, the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs stated its opposition to the change is because there is no correlating data to substantiate those claims.

”We believe the parent/mentor and child should make the decision when the child is ready to participate in a hunt.”

If there are violations occurring within this program, they should be handled like any other game law violation, according to the federation, “and not penalize an entire program for what appears to be mostly imaginary worries about a few bad apples.  

“The positive results from the program and the gains in youth hunters far outweigh any  perceived  negative issues or complaints from anti-hunters.”

Commissioner Dave Putnam, of Centre County, vice president of the board, seemed surprise by the uproar over the proposed change.

“The thing to remember is that every one of the game commissioners are huge supporters of  mentored youth hunting, and we appreciate what the program is doing in terms of getting more young hunters involved in the sport,” he said.

“But some of us are concerned about children just a few years out of diapers using high-powered rifles and killing big game. And we believe some of those animals are being taken by the adults, not the children.”

The proposed change is a solution in search of a problem, according to Rob Sexton, U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance senior vice president, who helped Pennsylvania partners put together the Families Afield legislation that was unanimously approved by the Legislature – which spawned mentored youth hunting.

He predicted that the commissioners will hear from representatives of groups that helped create mentored youth hunting, such as the federation, the state chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, the United Bowhunters of Pennsylvania and the National Rifle Association.

“The Game Commission is supposed to be science driven – based on sound science – and yet this proposed change doesn’t seem to have any foundation in any type of research data,” Sexton said.

“And I think that is a real concern, because in our mind there is proof positive that this program has been of great benefit to recruiting hunters. And it has been shown to be safe.”

By all accounts, the effects of mentored youth hunting are insignificant. Using 2012 numbers, Sexton pointed out, the proposed change will impact just shy of 10,000 people – in 2012 there were about 35,000 mentored youth hunters total, and they were slightly fewer than 10,000 who were below the age of 9.

Looking at Game Commission figures another way, mentored youths took 2.5 percent of the total deer killed in the 2012-13 seasons, with less than half of 1 percent killed by kids ages 6 to 8 years old. None younger than 6 harvested a deer.

Anecdotal evidence suggests some of those deer likely were killed not by a child, but by an adult. Game Commission law enforcement officials report that conservation officers have encountered adult mentors in the field in possession of the youth’s deer tag, and the child is not present.

However, agency law enforcement officials cannot say how often that’s occurring. No matter, Commissioner Putnam hopes a compromise he is sponsoring will tamp down opposition.

He confirmed that he will suggest that mentored youth younger than 7 still will be allowed to hunt deer and turkeys, but until they reach that age, the Game Commission will not issue them a tag to take a deer or turkey. 

For children younger than 7, Putnam will propose, mentors will have to use their deer tag. “I think board members will be able to agree on that,” he said. 

“It will address concerns about cheating and still allow mentored children to hunt at a very young age. 

“I support keeping the program as it is, with the exception of adults will have to use their own tag if a youth under 7 takes a big game animal – the age can be debated.”

Like Putnam, Game Commissioner Ron Weaner, of Adams County – who is responsible for the age-change item being on the meeting agenda – seemed surprised by how passionately people feel about this issue. 

The reaction has been unexpectedly loud, he told a news reporter.

But Weaner – who has made statements at recent commission meetings about his problems with very young children killing deer – said he wanted to hear from more people who appose the minimum age at the Jan. 25-27 meeting.

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