Are Hunters Being Driven Away From Our Sport By Too Many Regulations?

Recently a well-known outdoors writer from Minnesota lamented how the deer hunting regulations were getting so cumbersome that it took several hours of reading through them the night before deer season began just to understand them.   Others in attendance at the meeting were quick to point out that it was probably foolish for him to wait until the night before the season opened to finally start looking them over.   Yet, the point remains why is it necessary for the game laws and regulations to be so damn confusing.

MNhuntRegs08When I started hunting deer in Minnesota back in the 1970’s the rules and regulations were contained in just small pamphlets.   Oh sure, to be fair, big game, small game, waterfowl and trapping regulations were contained separately in small pamphlets no more than about 12 pages long each.   Today, however, everything is combined into one book and for 2008 it just so happens to be 130 pages long.

I’m sure this problem is not isolated to Minnesota, either.   Around the country I hear sportsmen complain how things just aren’t as simple as they used to be.   Is it possible we’ve regulated our hunting, fishing and trapping seasons so aggressively that you need to be a 2nd year law student just to interpret them?   Some folks would likely think so.

Recently about 50 goose hunters from Minnesota had their records expunged and fines that were paid returned due to a misinterpretation of the migratory waterfowl law during the early goose season (read more HERE).   They were improperly cited due to a loophole in the law that allowed unplugged shotguns and electronic calls during part of the season the past three years.   In other words, here’s proof that even those charged to enforce the game laws can make mistakes through improper interpretation.

Early last spring the Minnesota DNR announced it was going to make some of the most dramatic changes to the big game hunting regulations seen in several decades.   Why?   In one word…to “simplify” them.   The licensing menu had taken on too many options.   Certain seasons existed in zones that made little sense to wildlife managers.   Certain tagging and game validation requirements were ripe for change.   So change was instituted even though many hunting traditionalists resisted the radical deer season changes.

So, here we have the 2008 hunting regulations book (you can see a copy by clicking HERE).   All 130 pages of rules, regulations and advertisements (of course in the download version those pages show up as intentionally left blank).   At first glance there isn’t much to it that strikes me as being simplified.   I predict it will take me even longer this fall to acquaint myself with all the new rules and changes I must learn as a hunter and trapper.

But let’s step back from the specifics and look at things more generally speaking.   Put yourself in the shoes of a new hunter.   Back 30 years ago most of the laws and regulations one had to learn were basic and made sense.   Contrast that to what we have now.   There’s actually a section in the rules explaining “HOW TO BUY A FIREARMS DEER LICENSE.”   That’s right.   Thirty years ago the pamphlet would have simply listed the price for the deer license.   Today, the DNR finds it necessary to issue a lengthy explanation as to how to buy the right license.

Let’s shift gears here for just a bit.   Last week I attended a District 8 meeting for the Minnesota Trappers Association where the discussion focused on Minnesota’s mandatory youth trapper education requirement.   All persons born after Dec. 31, 1989 who have never purchased a trapping license must attend a free class before they are validated and can purchase a trapping license.   Problem is the program relies on volunteer instructors and finding a class has been a problem for some youth.   End result…NO class taken…NO trapping is allowed (in MN).

Now don’t get me wrong, I think the concept of trapper education is a wonderful one.   I wish they had it back when I started trapping at the age of 12.   I had to learn on my own.   I made mistakes.   I had nobody to teach me.   Problem is if I would have had to take one of these mandatory classes back in 1975 I would have probably abandoned the sport altogether.   A 12–year old can’t drive.   My mother who was then recently widowed wouldn’t have taken me to an all-day class 20 or 30 miles away.   It just wouldn’t have happened.   Bottom line…I would have never taken up trapping…hence I probably wouldn’t have developed a keen interest in the outdoor world…and right now I would be blogging about (heaven forbid) movies or some other mundane topic like that.

In closing, I just want to say that I think it’s time our state game departments get back to the basics before it’s too late.   As sportsmen we have enough attrition and general decline in our participation numbers we don’t need to find further ways to turn people off to our sport.   It shouldn’t take all night to read the regulation book just to comply with how we need to legally conduct ourselves afield.   Besides being confusing, it can downright take some of the fun out of the sport.

I pride myself on knowing the game and fish laws and following them very closely.   It’s the way I chose to live outdoors AND how I chose to pass that ethic on to the next generation around me.   I’ve grown accustomed to hunting and fishing regulations being increasingly burdensome to us sportsmen.   Yet, I think it’s time some big changes need to occur before it’s simply too late and more sportsmen quit out of utter frustration.

2008 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction without Prior Permission.

Out of Tragedy Inexcusable Mistakes Were Allegedly Made

Just a quick follow-up to my last post about the turkey hunter who mistakingly shot and killed his 8–year old son.   While I am not trying to dismiss, in any way, the tragic circumstances of this situation, it is now becoming more apparent the father made some serious mistakes allegedly not based on poor judgment alone.

An earlier Minneapolis StarTribune article suggested the father was not even licensed properly to be out turkey hunting and was trespassing on someone else’s property.   As if that action wasn’t bad enough, today now additional details of the incident were released stating the father has been shown to have been under the influence of alcohol (Breathalizer reading = .06) and urine testing showing the detectable presence of marijuana in his system.

While my heart goes out to the family who tragically lost a young loved one, the more I read of this incident the less I can sympathize with the father, despite his poor actions.   Indeed, the father may have been out hunting but NONE of his actions exemplify the kind of sportsmen with whom I associate.

2008 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction without Prior Permission.

Landowners Take A Hit Thanks To Careless Hunters

Unfortunately, we read about it happening most every fall.   You know what I mean…the news story that hits the wire describing a hunter’s errant bullet harming or perhaps killing some innocent person quite some distance away from the woods.   Those type of incidents are truly horrendous, and certainly not something any of us like to hear about—whether hunter or non-hunter alike.   Yet, to some extent, in life there’s no getting away from the fact that accidents will occur.   To believe otherwise is simply foolhardy given the number of hunters that take to the woods each fall.

Case in point happened last fall out in Pennsylvania.   Craig Wetzel was deer hunting on a farm when he shot at a deer.   The projectile apparently missed the deer and instead found an 18–year old pregnant woman sitting in a car in her driveway 1/2 mile away from where the shot took place.   The bullet grazed the young woman’s head fracturing her skull…but fortunately not killing her.   Today, the young victim is physically on the mend.

But this story doesn’t quite end there.   Nope, the victim sued the shooter and just a few weeks ago was awarded what will likely end up being a substantial negligence award.   You might say…well, that seems fair.   And thus far I would tend to agree.   But in that Pennsylvania courtroom the jury went a step further and found that the landowner who allowed the hunting to take place to be partly at fault.   In this case of contributory negligence the hunter was found to be 90% liable and the landowner, who was not involved in the hunting act, was found to be the final 10% at fault.

Oh, but it grows much worse than that.   In Pennsylvania the next phase of the trial will be another jury who will determine what type of damages the victim should receive.   Experts who have followed this case closely have speculated something that is almost unimaginable that might eventually happen.   Allegedly Mr. Wetzel is mostly judgment proof meaning that even if money was awarded you can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip.   If Wetzel doesn’t have the money to cover the potential jury award…then the landowner who is likely more flush with assets could possibly bear 100% of this final jury award.   Under Pennsylvania law—which does not necessarily mean the facts of this case could be construed in this very same manner in your particular state—there is a real possibility the landowner who innocently opened his land to allow hunting could pay a huge penalty for granting that permission.

One doesn’t have to use much imagination to speculate how this news is reverberating throughout regions in Pennsylvania.

“We’re watching it very closely,” said game commission press secretary Jerry Feaser. “But, it’s not just hunting that is at risk here. It is all forms of outdoor recreation. You have the potential for landowners overreacting and closing land to all forms of outdoor recreation.”

Hunters across the country have reason to take notice of this particular court case.   Even though the legal precedent it sets will probably not have a real impact in the areas where you likely hunt (unless you live in Pennsylvania), it’s news like this that makes landowners across the country quite nervous.   And rightly so.   The argument used to even convince the jury that the landowner was culpable could scare even a sensible, realistic-thinking landowner into a mode of acting overly cautious.

The Plaintiffs’ Attorney argued that the landowner “disregarded his neighbors’ safety by letting people hunt on his property.”

Apparently the landowner’s neighbors had posted their land and not allowed hunting.   Yet when the “negligent” landowner did not follow suit he helped to create the unfortunate situation by virtue of letting someone go hunting on his land.

I believe that what this shows is yet another form of attack on our sportsman’s rights.   Granted, the victim is probably due her compensation in this case…but let’s be realistic, the real culprit who caused the accident was not the landowner.   The only real reason the landowner was even brought into the case as a defendant was because when you sue someone you must go where the money is.   I find it damn hard to believe that the plaintiffs’ attorneys were not fully aware of the shooter’s lack of financial wherewithall before filing the lawsuit.   Yet they proceeded with the case because they knew the landowner, if found even the slightest bit negligent, could end up being the biggest loser.

As sportsmen we have every incentive to fight for stronger laws that protect and limit the type of liability a landowner could sustain.   On the surface this case just doesn’t seem quite right—albeit I only have just a few of the facts.   Still, when landowners become wary of who is on their land and refuse access just to minimize their risk…well then, we all lose.

As a landowner myself, I know I have a duty to carefully screen who I allow access to my land for hunting and fishing.   Yet, once that threshold of comfort is reached, is it right that I or any other landowner for that matter, be held liable for some hunter’s actions?   If the hunter was prone to act risky does the landowner have an absolute duty to determine that prior to granting permission?

Even worse yet…if the lands surrounding my farm restrict hunting should my farm be held to a higher standard because I opened it up to a bunch of recreationalists who happened to make a terrible mistake in judgment on some given day?   Maybe there’s not a legal precedent being established here for most of us…but there certainly could be a landowner access precedent that takes root from these kind of news reports and fosters a backlash even beyond Pennsylvania against allowing hunting on one’s land.

Let’s face it, about a dozen years ago I stood outside my garage talking to another hunter during deer season and had a slug travel only 10 feet or so above our heads.   We were lucky…but we were also quite mad about the incident.   For the next hour I chased down the hunter in an adjacent woods and read them the “riot act” pertaining to their carelessness.   Even had that slug caused property damage or some kind of injury to either of us…I don’t think the thought would have entered my mind to blame the landowner and try to hold him financially responsible.   It was the hunter who was the actor in the event that occurred.

When the day finally comes that landowners are worried to allow hunting on their land it will be the death-grip to end our beloved sport.   Sportsmen have a vested interest in seeing landowners in general treated respectfully and responsibly.   Even if one landowner loses, as might be the case someday soon out in Pennsylvania, the impact might be felt far beyond that state’s borders as landowners grow more cautious and less permissive to the types of activities that take place on their lands.   We simply cannot allow that to happen.

© 2006 Jim Braaten.  All Rights Reserved.  No Reproduction Without Prior Permission.