Iowa Hunters had Safe Hunting Season

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Sometimes, a downward trend is a good thing. Iowa hunters have chalked up another year with no firearm related deaths and if the pace continues, are on track for perhaps the safest hunting decade on record.

On the other hand, there was one hunting death, a bowhunter falling from a tree stand. That incident, along with 13 shooting-related injuries in 2007, shows there is always work to do. Still, the downward curve is encouraging. "Looking at our firearm related incidents, we have those numbers just about as low as we can get them," assesses Rod Slings, safety education coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources. "Hunter education became mandatory in Iowa in 1983. With those people out there now, it is making a difference. We are seeing the success of the program."

You don't have to look far to see the graphic difference. In 1965, 20 people died in hunting incidents. It was not uncommon in the 1960s and early '70s to have 10 or 12 hunting deaths and 60 to 140 injuries, in a year! Voluntary hunter education was initiated and the numbers started dropping. Since becoming mandatory, that curve has been bumping at around zero, one or two deaths a year. There is now an entire generation of Iowans certified in hunter education before they can purchase a license.

Those figures come in an era when about 250,000 of us buy hunting, furharvester, lifetime or preserve hunting licenses in a year. Add to that total many of the tens of thousands of landowners and tenants with deer or turkey tags. Unless they also hunt off their land, they do not need hunting licenses.

The requirement for blaze orange clothing deserves some credit. Firearm deer hunters are quite visible to others with vests, coats or coveralls of mandatory blaze orange covering their torsos. Upland bird hunters are now required to wear an item (cap, coat, gloves) that is at least 50 percent blaze orange. For the most part, though, the primary credit goes to 1,800 volunteer instructors in hunter education classes.

In those sessions, held anywhere from county nature centers and fish and game clubhouses, to sporting good stores and school classrooms, kids learn proper handling of firearms and a whole lot more. And not just kids. Parents often stick around for the 10 hours of instruction and hands-on training. A growing number of participants are young adults who didn't take them when younger and now are friends with-or married to-some one who hunts.

The classes also stress hunter ethics, wildlife identification, trailing game, first aid and other issues. In recent years, more attention has been paid to bowhunting and tree stand safety. That takes on added emphasis after this past fall. "We did have one fatality (in Madison County) which resulted from a tree stand fall. We had several injuries, too," says Slings. "That is an area we are concerned about. It used to be just bow hunters. Now, more muzzleloader and shotgun hunters seem to be hunting from an elevated device. We want to make sure you secure yourself with a full body harness."

That full harness is aimed at replacing old-fashioned 'belt' or shoulder-only gear. While they can prevent a fall all the way to the ground, serious internal injury or suffocation can result with all the impact on just a couple points of your body. The full harness directs much of that pressure to the legs and shoulders. Students in many classes are shown how to strap themselves in. Some even have a stand from which they can 'fall' just a few inches to understand how the gear works. They also are taught to keep three points of contact (hands, feet, strap) as you climb up to, or down from, an elevated stand.

Slings says that a million stands a year are sold under auspices of the Treestand Manufacturers Association. Any TMA stand includes a safety harness with the purchase.