OLYMPIA – Spurred by August’s fatal shooting of a woman by a 14-year-old hunter who mistook her for a bear, some state lawmakers want to reinstate a law requiring that young hunters be accompanied by adults.
“I think there’s a real problem here,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle. She said she was alarmed to learn that young children can hunt big game alone during the height of summer’s hiking, trail-running and recreation season. The shooting was a tragedy for both the victim and the young hunter, she said.
Hunting groups and state wildlife officials say that requiring an adult “mentor” for hunters 14 and younger is a good idea. That’s what the law required until 1994, when lawmakers did away with the rule. Nobody seems to remember why.
“That’s one of the damned good questions to which nobody’s got an answer,” said Ed Owens, a lobbyist for the 56,000-member Hunters Heritage Council. “We would absolutely support restoration of the limitations that were in effect in 1994.”
So would the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“We think it’s prudent to reinstate that” or even raise the hunt-alone age to 16, said Bruce Bjork, an enforcement officer with the department. The department has asked lawmakers several times over the past six years to reinstate the old law, he said, but it didn’t happen.
In Washington, there is no minimum age to purchase a hunting license, but the hunter must take a hunter education course. Although children as young as 7 or 8 sometimes take the courses, Owens said, instructors can turn away students who are too small or immature to handle weapons responsibly.
Despite two fatal hunting accidents involving non-hunters this year, such incidents are extremely rare, Bjork said. Hunting accidents have declined dramatically in recent years, he said.
In the 515 documented hunting accidents in Washington over the past 28 years, he said, only eight involved non-hunters. (One-third of the injuries were self-inflicted, often by hunters stumbling with a weapon, dropping it or accidentally leaving the weapon loaded.) Many of the incidents stemmed from shotgunners swinging their weapon on moving game.
In one case, a horse and a human were shot by a duck hunter. In another case, a duck hunter firing from the roof of his home shot a person mowing the lawn 100 yards away. Several recent cases, including this year’s other fatality, have involved hunters firing on people harvesting brush, apparently thinking they’re animals.
In the August shooting, Pamela Almli, who had dark hair, was wearing a dark jacket. She was shot while bending over to put something in her backpack. Bjork said the boy, who was accompanied by his 16-year-old brother, broke two key rules of hunting: be sure of your target, and never use a rifle scope as binoculars.
Archery and muzzle-loaders are involved in only a tiny percentage of the injuries, Bjork said. And requirements that hunters wear bright orange seem to have helped.
“Hunting does remain a safe activity,” Bjork said. “… Incidents do occur. Fewer have occurred over time.”
During a hearing on the proposal Thursday, some rural lawmakers floated the idea of making an exception for kids hunting on their families’ land.
Kohl-Welles said it’s unrealistic to expect hikers, trail runners, and others to wear hunter orange. But she’d like to see more education and signs warning hikers when they’re in a hunting zone. It’s hard for casual backpackers to figure out hunting regions and seasons, she said.