Whether youths are more likely to continue hunting if they get into the field at a young age is being debated again this legislative session in Helena.
Senate Bill 197, sponsored by Sen. Scott Boulanger, R-Darby, would allow 9-year-olds to hunt with an adult mentor three times before being required to take hunter education.
“It’s a hunter recruitment bill,” Boulanger said. “It gives them a chance to try the sport.”
The apprentice hunters would not be allowed to apply for limited drawing permits like moose or bighorn sheep, and would have to be accompanied by a mentor at least 21 years old. In a fiscal note attached to the bill, it was estimated that 3,600 of the licenses could be sold.
The bill in its original form didn’t specify a minimum age but was amended in the Senate Fish and Game Committee, which passed the measure 9-1. The bill passed the full Senate on Thursday by a vote of 34-16 and now goes to the House.
“I think we’ve come a long way in putting sideboards on this bill,” said Sen. Kendall Van Dyk, D-Billings, who supported the measure.
The idea behind the bill is that the sooner youngsters are exposed to the sport of hunting, the more likely they are to stick with the activity as they grow up.
Current Montana law allows only those who are 12 and older to hunt, and those hunters born after Jan. 1, 1985, must have passed a hunter education course.
The bill is opposed by many hunter education instructors, said Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena.
“I think we should be very cautious about sending our kids out in the woods with a high-powered rifle,” she told the full Senate on Thursday.
Sen. Robin Driscoll, D-Billings, said similar bills came before her when she served in the House and were ultimately defeated.
“This circumvents the hunter safety program we have in place to protect our kids,” she said.
Driscoll added that youngsters can enjoy everything else about hunting except the shooting by tagging along with friends and family members on hunting trips.
Boulanger, who is a hunter and who has taken his children hunting, said fear of an increase in hunter-related shootings is unfounded. He compares a mentored hunter with a mentored driver, they are both much more safe with an adult present than they would be on their own.
“This is not a trial,” he added. “There are 34 other states that have this already.”
To encourage young hunters, Montana already provides incentives for a sport that many see as slowly dying. Young hunter-ed graduates receive a free sportsman license to hunt deer, elk and upland birds in their first year. The agency also allows youngsters the first shot at some species through youth hunts the weekend before the general season opens.
According to a study done by Southwick and Associates, which included Montana along with 11 other states, 82 percent of Montana hunter-ed graduates bought a hunting license within six years after completing the course between 2006-11. That was the best of the 12 states studied.
During the study period, if a youngster bought a license all six of the years after completing hunter education, that was recorded as 100 percent of sales potential. Montana’s sales potential was 55.8 percent, the highest of the 12 states. The average for the study group was 41.9 percent.
Families Afield, a group sponsored by the National Wild Turkey Federation, National Shooting Sports Foundation and the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, has been a strong national advocate for lowering the age at which youngsters can participate in hunting. According to Families Afield’s data, states with no age restrictions on hunting are leading in hunter recruitment.
Hunter numbers continue to decline nationally. More older people hunt than younger ones. Not enough younger hunters are being recruited to replace the older hunters who drop out.
As a result, state wildlife agencies like Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks that rely on hunter license dollars to manage big game are under an increasing revenue crunch. Wildlife programs, restoration projects and land purchases could also suffer, since a percentage of the dollars that hunters spend on such items as guns and ammunition trickle down to states. FWP took no position on SB 197.
“We are losing our younger generation for the outdoors,” said Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, speaking in support of the measure. “To bring these numbers back up … this would be a good move.”
Boulanger compared hunting to fishing when he said, “Imagine going to your favorite fishing hole with your child and telling them you can watch but you can’t fish. How many times are they going to want to go fishing with you if they can’t catch fish?
“We have faith in the parents to make the decision,” he said.