Madison — More than a decade after an editorial cartoon helped spark opposition to lowering the hunting age to 8 years old, a controversial bill was signed into law Nov. 11 that eliminated the requirement that a youth be at least age 10 to hunt in Wisconsin.
It’s now up to parents or guardians to decide when a child is mature enough to hunt with a gun, bow, or crossbow.
“I’m excited about this,” said Jeff Schinkten, of Sturgeon Bay, the national president of Whitetails Unlimited, Inc., and grandfather to Charlie Prokash, 9, of Algoma, who he mentored opening weekend of the 2017 gun deer hunt in Door County.
“Charlie’s been carrying a BB gun along on my hunts for years, and safety has always been our first priority,” Schinkten said. “But let’s be honest. There are dozens of states that have allowed this for many years, and mentored kids have proven to be even safer than adults.”
As has been the case since Wisconsin’s mentored hunter law went into effect in 2009 – then for age 10 and older only – no hunter education is required, but the adult must be within arm’s length of the mentored hunter.
License sales for those age 9 and under began Nov. 13, and from that date through Nov. 21, 1,446 licenses were sold to kids age 9 and younger. In the first four days, more than 500 had been sold.
Authored by Sen. Terry Moulton, R-Chippewa Falls, and Rep. Rob Stafsholt, R-New Richmond, the bill passed the Senate 21-12; the Assembly by a vote of 57-32. It is known as 2017 Act 62.
In addition, the new law eliminates the former limit of one hunting device (gun, bow, crossbow) between the mentor and mentee. Each may now carry a hunting device, if they so choose.
Many volunteer hunter safety instructors opposed that part of the bill, stating that all the focus should be on the young hunter.
Group deer hunting is legal during the gun season, but the rule prohibits a mentor from killing a deer for the mentee, or from using a deer carcass tag issued to the mentee.
Legislators had attempted to eliminate the age restriction at least twice before. The first time, in 2006, they were also debating a proposal to keep 8-year-olds in booster seats, spawning editorial cartoons of children in car seats holding firearms.
Many hunter safety instructors also testified that they believed kids under age 12 may not be ready for the responsibility that comes with handling a firearm while hunting. The proposal did not advance, but three years later, the mentored hunt rule allowing hunting by those age 10 and older was passed.
State law now allows youths with hunter education to sit within voice or visual contact of an adult hunter at age 12, and hunt alone at age 14. However, those without hunter education born after Jan. 1, 1973, may only legally hunt under the mentored hunting law, within arm’s length of a qualified mentor.
Rep. Joel Kleefisch, chairman of the Assembly Natural Resources and Sporting Heritage Committee, said Act 62 allows responsible hunters to get kids off the couch and off the electronics and into the woods.
Schinkten said anything that can safely get more kids hooked on hunting is a good thing in times of declining license sales, the key funding tool of state wildlife management.
“(The season) will come and go before people realize it,” Schinkten said. “(But the law change) will put some extra people in the woods, and hopefully the mentors will do their job and stay safe. I get it. It scares people that an 8-year-old or a 9-year-old has a high-powered rifle in his hands. But it’s been done for years in other states.”
Right after getting his grandson a DNR customer ID number and his first hunting license, Schinkten and Prokash headed to a gun club with a scoped .243.
“We wanted to make sure he hits where he aims,” Schinkten said. “It’s one thing to miss, but we don’t want any wounding. He’s not going to be shooting at any running deer, and I’ll be right there with him.”