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Paul A. Smith: Mentored hunting law isn't a solution for reduced participation and still needs work [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel :: BC-OTD-SMITH-COLUMN:MW]

MILWAUKEE - The sun has set on Wisconsin's 167th gun deer season, allowing for a time of review and debate.

The deer kill and license sales were both down slightly this year (about 1 percent and 2 percent, respectively).

Seen from a historical perspective, however, the levels have diminished to some of the lowest in more than three decades, matters of no small concern to conservationists and wildlife managers.

The white-tailed deer population is too large in many areas of the state, and hunter harvest is the most effective tool to curb its growth. The gun season accounts for the state's largest annual deer harvest.

Similarly, the gun deer season provides the single-largest stream of license revenue to the Department of Natural Resources. Lower sales, especially in an era of reduced funding by the Legislature and no political support for fee increases, inevitably leads to cuts in services and programs.

The 2017 hunt saw several new rules, including the elimination of carcass tagging. Early reports indicate the regulation is a nightmare for law enforcement.

It was also the first deer season under the state's new mentored hunting law.

The recently completed season allows some preliminary observations of the new provision. It also highlighted a loophole in the law that should be closed.

Signed earlier this month by Gov. Scott Walker, the law eliminated the minimum hunting age and allowed the mentor to hunt alongside the mentee.

As reported earlier this week,10 licenses were sold to infants and 52 to children age 5 and under.

In all, 1,722 mentored gun hunting licenses were purchased for those 9 and under.

Did any of the infants or toddlers actually hunt? It's unknown. The youngest hunter to have a deer registered on their license was age 4, according to DNR officials.

What is known - and significant - is none of the participants under the age of 9 was involved in a shooting incident.

The 2017 season was another example of how safe hunting is. Seven shooting incidents were recorded among the state's more than 580,000 gun hunters. All the injuries were nonfatal; five were self-inflicted.

The new law benefits parents who are really into hunting and want to get their child under the age of 10 a chance to harvest a deer.

Hunting with such youngsters is usually conducted on private property, in a blind, with hunters side-by-side and with the firearm on a rest.

Records show these types of hunting situations are among the safest. And Wisconsin's 2017 gun season seems to have provided additional proof.

What the new mentored hunting law doesn't do is solve the larger recruitment challenge.

Although it allows kids of passionate parents to take the field with a license a few years earlier than they otherwise would have, these youngsters likely would have become hunters anyway.

States that have had no minimum hunting age for many years have experienced losses of hunters on the same scale or greater than their counterparts.

For a snapshot of the license sales trends, take a look at the 2017 Wisconsin gun deer hunt. The DNR sold 588,387 gun licenses, a drop of 10,420 from 2016 and the lowest in 41 years.

Licenses sold under the liberalized mentored hunting law fell far short of offsetting the decline.

Another unknown regarding this year's mentored hunts is how many deer were registered on young hunters' licenses but shot by other hunters.

This is an aspect of the law that needs to be fixed.

Although Act 62 specifies a mentor cannot shoot a deer on the mentee's license, it does allow other hunters in the group to do so.

Since the mentored license is just $5 (the normal deer license is $24), it could motivate some group hunters to buy one for the newest, youngest member and shoot an extra buck on it.

Responsible hunters asked lawmakers to wipe out a similar provision for antlerless deer on the youth deer license a couple of years ago.

The recent law change allows a parent to decide at what age a child starts hunting.

It's up to legislators to fix a loophole they created and make sure the kids' hunting privileges aren't abused.

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