HELENA — Children as young as 9 could go big-game hunting with a “mentor” for three years before having to take a hunter safety course under a bill winding its way through the Legislature.
Senate Bill 197, sponsored by Scott Boulanger, R-Darby, would create a “hunter apprentice certificate” for children 9 and older that would allow them to hunt with someone older than 21, as long as that person stays in close range and has completed a hunter education class. Boulanger believes his bill creates an opportunity to get kids hunting at an earlier age and increase interest in the sport.
“Thirty-four other states have adopted the same or similar legislation,” Boulanger said. “Since 2005, over 780,000 apprentice licenses have been sold with a 50 percent hunter retention rate. Since 1990, there’s been a 31,000-person decrease in resident hunter in Montana and the average age is growing. SB197 is a feeder program for the hunter safety program.”
His bill already passed the Senate on a 35-15 vote, and narrowly was approved by the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee Thursday on an 11-10 vote. He expects it to come before the full House of Representatives next week.
“The bill has the support of all the major national hunting organizations — the Safari Club, Big Game Forever, Sportsman for Fish and Wildlife, Ducks Unlimited, the National Turkey Federation — are all behind the bill,” Boulanger said. “They’re all blasting emails to their members to contact their representatives. So there’s ton of work going on behind the scenes to get the support of the House.”
Four attempts at similar legislation during previous sessions have all failed.
Some local sporting groups and hunter education instructors have voiced opposition to the measure. They said the current law, in which youths must be 12 years old and pass both a written and field test before being issued a hunting license, promotes safe use of firearms, hunting ethics and landowner relations.
“We don’t think 9-year-olds should be able to hunt without taking hunters ed,” said George Golie, representing the Montana Wildlife Federation.
Rep. Gordon Pierson, D-Deer Lodge, added that the thought of a 9-year-old holding a loaded high-powered rifle and experiencing “buck fever,” who hasn’t taken a hunter education class, is disconcerting.
“Hunter education is proven to teach safety,” Pierson said. “I’m not saying parents are not capable of doing that, but not all are.”
Bill opponents also said that most youth ages 9 to 11 aren’t mentally and emotionally mature enough to handle firearms, nor are they physically capable of handling firearms made primarily for adults. A recent survey showed 75 percent of hunter education instructors opposed the SB197.
“Under the bill, a third grader could hunt for three years before needing to take this class,” said Roger Lloyd, who’s been a hunter education instructor for 40 years. “You need to kill this bill before some third grader kills herself or some hunter.”
About 6,500 people take Montana’s hunter education classes every year. They typically involve eight hours of classroom training followed by an hour of hands-on shooting at a rifle range.
Proponents of the bill say that it promotes getting families together in the outdoors and helping them undertake traditional pastimes in an era when structured sports like soccer and baseball consume youths’ time, and electronic devices like video games keep them indoors. They added that it should be parents, not the state, that should decide whether a child is mature enough to hunt, and that smaller, lighter weapons designed specifically for smaller people are available.
“There are plenty of parents out there who are fully capable of making very important decisions for their children every day, and can make this one too,” said Mac Minard with the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association.
Andrew McKean, editor of Outdoor Life magazine, added that hunter numbers throughout the nation have been declining for 20 years, but a 2011 Fish and Wildlife Service report showed an increase due in part to Family Afield programs that are similar to Boulanger’s bill.
Boulanger said the hunter apprentices would be better equipped when taking their hunter education classes because of their real-life experiences.
“I think when you start doing classes, people who have been mentored will have a leg up instead of having a lot of people who depend on sitting through an eight-hour class,” he said.