2005 Was a Safe Hunting Year

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Hunters in Iowa came through 2005 with one of their safest years on record. Though marred by a tragic fatality in Johnson County, the overall figures continue a several year trend toward fewer incidents. Safety officials say they can pinpoint the obvious reason; Iowa's mandatory hunter education program.

"We do a thorough job of investigating incidents that occur and we take that information and we put it into the hands of our 1,800 volunteer instructors," says Rod Slings, safety education coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "I attribute it their hard work and dedication in getting that education into the classroom."

In 2005, a December 4 shooting took the life of Scott Knebel, of North Liberty, in the first shotgun deer season, near Oxford, in Johnson County. Through the rest of the year, 23 other hunters were injured in shooting incidents. While 2005 figures actually show an upturn, they follow the safest hunting year on record. In 2004, there were no deaths and just 17 injuries. In 2003, there were two fatalities and 41 injuries. In 2002, there was one hunting death, with 25 injuries. And though any shooting is one too many, the recent numbers show a trend headed in the right direction. From the mid 1960s through the early '70s there were up to 10 to 20 deaths and from 60 to 140 injuries in many years. There were more hunters 30 and 40 years ago, but not nearly the number to account for those figures.

That's also about the time hunter education classes became mandatory for incoming Iowa hunters. Last year, 11,614 students went through 403 classes around the state learning everything from safe firearm handling to first aid and wildlife identification. "It's been one of the most successful safety programs on record; reducing the number of hunting related shootings," says Slings. "Whenever you pick up a firearm, you are picking up a responsibility." Still, that hunter education certificate does not guarantee a safe hunt. Shooters in 16 of Iowa's 26 incidents (including a couple property damage only cases) had completed the course.

While the fields and woods are much safer these days, there are still breakdowns. You don't have to be a quail hunter in Texas to slip up. In fact, nine of Iowa's 23 injuries in 2005 were similar to the Cheney-Wittington shooting that sparked headlines for a week. "Swinging on game is when the (bird) gets up and the shotgun is swung to the left or right, following that bird," recites Slings. "Make sure you don't violate your zone of fire; that 'V' out in front of you. Also, know where your hunting companions are at all times."

Any hunter education effort is geared to record no incidents. However, humans aren't infallible. Several steps can reduce the risk of problems in the field, though. Blaze orange-particularly blaze orange required for upland bird hunters now-makes us more visible through partial cover as a bird or other game animal flushes. The old reliable standard, of course, is knowing where your muzzle is pointed at all times.

"The key is to plan your hunt...and then hunt your plan," stresses Slings. "If you say you are going to be in a particular area during a deer drive, for instance, stay in that area. Remember, the people you choose to hunt with are your family and closest friends."