Improving perception, safety on agenda

ON THE OUTDOORS

March 10, 1996|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

Last week, more than three dozen hunter education professionals from 13 states in the Northeast met in Ocean City to discuss common concerns about hunter safety programs and the future of hunting in their states.

A common concern among hunter education program leaders who attended the annual U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Region 5 Hunter Education Workshop was the perception nonhunters have of hunters and hunting.

"We are interested in getting the word out that hunting is an acceptable form of recreation, and that hunters are responsible people, too," said Vic McCallum, head of Maryland's Hunter Safety Education Program. "A hunter can be the guy next door or the woman down the street -- almost anybody in any neighborhood."

As one educator from New Jersey put it, "You know he or she is a little unusual, because -- wind, rain or snow -- at certain times of the year they get up at 4: 30 in the morning and leave their houses with smiles on their faces."

According to USFWS statistics, the number of people who hunt has been declining for more than a decade, and hunter safety program leaders are looking for ways to encourage people to investigate hunting as a form of recreation.

"Not everyone can be a hunter," said McCallum. "But we wonder whether public opinion hasn't turned a lot of people off from it even before they know anything about it."

In the opinion of several educators at the workshop, media attention too often has been directed toward coverage of anti-hunting demonstrations and hunting accidents rather than toward the positive side of the sport.

For example:

An educator from Maine cited a case in which a woman was accidentally shot by an experienced hunter while working in her yard, and the incident drew national coverage. But when all of New England went through a recent hunting season without a single firearms fatality, coverage was limited to a paragraph or two in local newspapers.

An educator from Connecticut mentioned a case in his state in which a jogger was shot by a hunter. The hunter had not attended a hunter safety education class, a fact he said was overlooked in news coverage.

"There are occasional fatalities in all sports, and when one occurs in hunting, the cry goes up to abolish the sport," said an educator from New York. "But there are many more irresponsible drivers causing fatalities on our highways -- and no one starts to yell about abolishing automobile traffic."

Without question, there are irresponsible hunters, just as there are irresponsible drivers -- and in both cases education programs can help reduce their numbers, and revocation of licenses can reduce the number of the recalcitrant.

Maryland, for example, has an active and effective youth hunter program, highlighted by an annual one-day, juniors-only deer hunt, which was started this past fall.

"There are a lot of juniors interested in that one day when only they can hunt deer in the state," said McCallum. "But in order to take part, they must complete the Hunter Safety Education Course -- and that helps them become responsible, ethical hunters from the outset."

In Maryland, hunters licensed for the first time after July 1, 1977, must complete a certified hunter safety course, unless they are nonresidents hunting waterfowl only or can prove they previously hunted on private property and were legally exempt from being licensed.

McCallum said that in Maryland the number of people enrolling in hunter safety education courses has been increasing the past few years.

But in New York and New Jersey, for example, enrollment is off. In New York, enrollment in basic hunter safety programs is off nearly 60 percent since 1982, and bowhunter enrollment is off nearly 45 percent over the same period.

In New Jersey, said one educator, among the major problems faced by hunter education programs is single-parent families, which he said now make up 60 percent of the state's population.

"In those families, the dads might be inclined to enroll a junior in an education program," he said. "But for most of the moms, guns of any kind are just bad news."

Oddly enough, in several other states in Region 5, women are the fastest-growing segment among shooters. "They might be FTC interested more in sporting clays than deer," McCallum said. "But their numbers are rising."

Responsive Management of Harrisonburg, Va., a polling organization specializing in wildlife and outdoor issues, recently completed a national survey of public opinion on hunting and fishing.

According to the study, the attitudes of 2,085 randomly selected Americans 18 or older resulted in the following:

* Seventy-three percent of those polled generally approved of legal hunting, with 40 percent strongly in favor and 33 percent moderately approving.

* Twenty-two percent disapproved, with 11 percent strongly in opposition and 11 percent moderately opposed.

* Five percent did not know or had no opinion.

* Eighty-one percent agreed that hunting should continue to be legal, with 16 percent disagreeing and 3 percent undecided.

However, when asked whether hunting is a "safe recreational activity," 37 percent said it was not, 59 percent said it was and 5 percent had no opinion. On the question of whether people should "have the freedom to choose to hunt," 84 percent said they should, 14 percent said they shouldn't and 2 percent had no opinion.

On whether all new hunters should be required to pass a hunter education course, 92 percent of respondents said yes, and 89 percent of the active hunters within the survey group said yes.

On whether current hunters should be required to pass refresher courses, 77 percent of those polled said yes and 50 percent of active hunters surveyed agreed.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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