No minimum hunting age bill goes to public hearing Nov. 17

Madison — A bill that would eliminate Wisconsin’s minimum hunting age and allow a mentor to also carry a firearm, crossbow or bow while mentoring a beginner was scheduled for a public hearing Nov. 17.

AB 411 would allow parents or legal guardians to decide if their child is physically, mentally and emotionally ready to handle a firearm, crossbow or bow and hunt at any age, if the bill eventually passes both houses and is signed by the governor. Also, two hunting devices would be allowed between the mentor and beginner, instead one one as the law reads now.

“I’m OK with lowering the age, but am not in favor of allowing two weapons between the two,” said Rob Bohmann, Conservation Congress chairman. 

Currently, a person under the mentored hunting law may hunt without obtaining a hunter education certificate and may possess or control a firearm while hunting if the person has a valid hunting approval and is hunting with a qualified mentor. 

The mentor must remain within arm’s reach of the person for whom he or she is serving as a mentor, must hold a current valid hunting approval, must have obtained a certificate of accomplishment or be exempt from the requirement to obtain a certificate of accomplishment, and may take only one person hunting at a time. Additionally, the mentor and person who is hunting with the mentor may jointly have only one firearm, bow, or crossbow while hunting.

The U.S. Sportsman’s Alliance – a non-profit group that aims to protect and defend hunting, fishing and trapping – said in a press release that 40 other states allow parents to decide when their children are ready to hunt. The group also said that data from mentored hunting states dating back to 2007 shows that mentored hunters have been about five times safer than regular licensed hunters, and only four states have a one-gun restriction.

Wisconsin Wildlife Federation wildlife committee chairman Ralph Fritsch said he believes that Wisconsin’s tradition of safety, despite having some of the heaviest deer hunting pressure in the country, could be threatened if two guns are allowed and there’s less focus on the beginner. 

Fritsch said he has talked to many hunter education instructors, and all have said 10 years old is working, as is the one gun rule between the mentor and the new hunter.

“One gun between them, now that’s a mentor,” Fritsch said. “He gives of his time. He’s helping create a new hunter, not thinking about how he’d like to be shooting, too.”

In its press release, the USSA said the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association (WBHA), Wisconsin Chapters of Safari Club International and the Wisconsin Bowhunters Association all support AB 411.

Signing on to lobby for a companion bill, SB 301, were the National Rifle Association of America, Whitetails of Wisconsin (a non-profit group representing deer farmers and hunting preserves), Wisconsin FORCE (Firearm Owners, Ranges, Clubs and Educators, Inc.) and the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association.

In December 2010, a year after Wisconsin lowered the minimum hunting age from 12 to 10, DNR deputy chief Warden Karl Brooks said that neither legislators nor the general public would have been comfortable eliminating the age requirement. Brooks noted that after a lot of debate,“(10) seemed to be an age where most people agreed children could grasp the concept of the firearm’s power under the mentorship of someone older, use wise judgment and also have the physical stature to make a good, clean shot.”

Reminded recently of the 2010 quote, Brooks said he couldn’t comment other than to say that if asked, DNR would only provide factual information “and then let the policymakers decide.”

Prior to the 2009 law change, a major push by lawmakers to lower the legal hunting age to eight in 2006 was shot down due to controversy that included another bill introduced that would keep 8-year-olds in booster seats. That spawned editorial cartoons lampooning legislators; more than one artist featured a child in a booster seat holding a firearm.

Proponents of the bill say parents, not the government, should best decide when a child is ready to hunt. Many also cite recent declines in hunter numbers and believe kids starting earlier may reverse that trend.

Fritsch said kids can get excited about hunting just by tagging along with an adult – no firearm needed. 

 “You don’t have to pull the trigger to get hooked on hunting,” he said.

Higher fines for illegal game, fish

In addition to AB 411 (mentored hunting) and AB 415 (eliminating back tags), the Nov. 17 public hearing in the Committee on Natural Resources and Sporting Heritage also includes AB 471, relating to wild animal protection surcharges for game fish and a higher wild animal protection surcharge for certain animals of a larger size. 

This bill allows a court to impose a higher wild animal protection surcharge when it imposes a fine or forfeiture for the unlawful killing, wounding, catching, taking, trapping, or possession of a deer, elk, or bear that has a certain size of antlers or skull. It also includes surcharges that may be imposed for various game fish species. 

The bill requires the DNR to establish a method for measuring the antler or skull size, and specifies the amount of the surcharge allowed for each animal. If both a regular and a higher wild animal protection surcharge are allowed, the bill requires a court to impose the higher surcharge, up to $10,000 for a trophy-size deer or elk. 

Interested readers can see the complete content of AB 471 and all hunting and fishing bills and amendments at https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2015. 

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