Legislature hears lots of support for letting younger kids hunt

Danielle threeHi. My name is Danielle Armiger. I want the law to change so that little girls that are 8 years old can hunt. I am ready to hunt because I’ve been hunting with my Mom and Dad since I was four years old. Also, I got a .22 Cricket for Christmas and I’ve been doing a good job learning how to shoot it safely.  I know how to use my .22 rifle safely. I know not to point it at anybody, to keep my finger off the trigger until I’m ready to shoot. I’m ready to hunt because I know a lot about animals. I’m a good aimer. And I’m a good shooter. I love the meat from the animal.

I doubt that any of us needed to testify for LD 156, An Act to Lower the Eligibility Age for a Junior Hunting License, after this delightful young lady, a first grader from Pittsfield, stood on a chair to deliver her testimony. And boy, she was terrific! When she finished, Danielle got a big round of applause, something you don’t hear much at the legislature.

I admit that I was a bit skeptical of this proposal, which would lower Maine’s hunting age from 10 to 8, until its sponsor, Representative Gary Hilliard, joined me for breakfast at the Olde Post Office Café in Mount Vernon one morning and presented all of his research on the issue. That information is compelling and convincing.

Representative Hilliard

In his testimony, Rep. Hilliard posed the correct questions: Are children 8 years old physically able to hunt safely in Maine? Would there be any detrimental effect on the wildlife of the State of Maine? Are there any other limiting factors keeping us from making this change.

And then he presented these facts:

38 States have no lower age limits for junior hunters accompanied by adults;

Only four of these states have some other limit on junior hunters (no big game, safety course requirements, etc.);

Junior hunters are the safest hunters in the woods, with an accident rate much lower than hunters overall.

DanielleRep. Hilliard noted that for every 10 hunters lost, they are replaced by less than 7 hunters. “If this trend continues, funding for hunting could drop by 25% in the next 10 years. Studies show that the younger we start youth hunting, chances are better they will stay for a lifetime.

“In closing, parents care for and know their children far better than the government and are in a better position to decide when their children should hunt, said Hilliard. It is the right thing to do for the future of hunting in our State of Maine.”

U.S. Sportsman’s Alliance

James Cote, the manager of the sportsmen’s campaign for the bear referendum, and now a consultant and lobbyist for various groups, was retained by the U.S. Sportsman’s Alliance to work on this issue, which has been a primary focus of the USSA across the country. He presented very good testimony, focused on a range of issues from safety to hunter recruitment. But it was when he spoke of his personal situation that I think he was most powerful.

“I am also here as a lifelong Maine hunter and a father who is looking forward to spending many years in the woods with my two sons.” There were several other fathers in the audience, including Danielle’s Dad, and they all spoke from the heart. I can’t imagine denying them and their children this opportunity.

Cote proposed two amendments. One would eliminate the age requirement all together, and let parents decide on the age when their children are ready to hunt. The second amendment would lift the cap of two years when Mainers may purchase an adult apprentice hunting license. “By lifting this cap, we give adults more opportunity to try various types of hunting before they have to commit to a hunter education course, and all of the other investments and barriers that, frankly, come with hunting.”

Danielle twoRob Sexton, a national USSA consultant, has been in Maine several times over the past two months, briefing various groups on this proposal. Rob was here today for the hearing, and offered compelling testimony about how this works across the country. He presented an impressive array of data and research. I was particularly impressed with a four-page handout from Families Afield, a program established by USSA, the National Sporting Sports Foundation, and the National Wild Turkey Federation in 2005.

“The Families Afield coalition supports LD 156 because it will remove yet another barrier that prevents the introduction of hunting to the next generation by lowering eligibility of a junior hunting license from ten to eight,” testified Sexton. “However, the coalition strongly encourages the Maine legislature to remove the references to age for the junior hunting license. This would allow parents to decide when their sons and daughters are ready to begin hunting.”

Sexton noted that Vermont, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania are among the 39 states that trust parents to make this decision. In Pennsylvania, 49 percent of the mentored youth licenses sold are apprentices under the age of ten. Trusting parents has helped to recruit 1.2 million apprentice hunters, while maintaining such an impressive safety record. Sexton presented data showing that this youngest group of hunters is also the safest. Impressive!

DIF&W Opposed – Sort Of

The only opponent to this bill was the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, but their opposition was really only specific to one issue. And in a very unusual, Commissioner Chandler Woodcock had a letter distributed to the committee, outlining the concerns the agency has with the bill, instead of testifying at the hearing.

“If the Committee supports this proposal,” wrote Woodcock, “we believe a mandatory safety course should be considered. We would encourage the Committee to eliminate the age restriction to hunt and in conjunction with this, we suggest a mandatory course for all hunters.” Yes, he wrote that DIF&W encourages the Committee to eliminate the hunting age restriction.

This would be a dramatic change because junior hunters up to the age of 14 are not required to take the safety course which is really designed for older kids and adults. There is no special course for younger children.

Woodcock also asked the committee, if it supported the bill, “to study current supervision restrictions and be aware that at this time they do not speak to a ratio regarding how many youth one adult supervisor can supervise, the proximity of the adult supervisor to the youth hunters and these provisions do not prevent a parent supervisor who has never hunted from taking that child hunting nor do the restrictions require the youth to be under the supervisor’s immediate control.”

Woodcock also reported that of 75 hunting incidents over the last ten years, 7 involved a shooter who was under 16 years of age. Five of these were self-inflicted and two were situations where the youth shot another hunter. The self-inflicted incidents involved acts of mishandling loaded firearms while the two-party incidents involved the shooter not properly identifying his or her target and/or checking the surroundings for another hunters. All of these occurred while under the supervision and presence of the adult.

My Testimony

I told a couple of stories of hunting with my Dad and with my son and, soon, with my grandson, who is 8 but is very excited about joining me for turkey hunting this year. I’m teaching him to do the calling.

In my testimony, I answered a few questions from committee members, and emphasize that Maine kids should have the same opportunities to hunt that kids have in 39 other states. Let’s hope they agree!

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.