Missouri Turkey Season Safest in 35 Years

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The biggest news to come out of this year's spring turkey hunting season has nothing to do with the number of turkeys killed, but rather with how few hunters were hurt. For the first time in 35 years, the spring turkey season's accident toll fell to two.

Safety has been an issue since the first modern turkey season in 1960. With turkey numbers increasing, the Missouri Conservation Commission approved a three-day hunting season with a limit of one. By 1963, when the Conservation Department began keeping records of turkey hunting accidents, the season had been expanded to four days, and there were 1,778 licensed hunters. There was also one firearms-related turkey hunting accident, in which a hunter lost his life.

Over the years, turkeys grew more numerous, and so did hunters. Between 1970 and 1972 turkey hunter numbers doubled, from 10,000 to 20,000. During the early history of Missouri's turkey season, the number of turkey hunting accidents averaged fewer than two per year. Some years there were none.

Then in 1973 the number exploded to 16. After that, the toll gradually increased to a peak of 29 in 1988. It is no coincidence that hunter education became mandatory that year.

"The number of hunting accidents overall had become a serious concern," said Hunter Education Coordinator Bryan Bethel. "Turkey hunting accidents weren't the only reason, but they certainly were part of what led to mandatory hunter education."

Since 1988, anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 1967, has been required to successfully complete an approved hunter education course that includes firearms and hunting safety. Last year Missouri certified its 1 millionth hunter education graduate.

The results have been as dramatic as the conditions that led to mandatory hunter education. From 1979 through 1988, the number of reported spring turkey hunting accidents averaged 18 per year. From 1998 through 2007, the average has been 6.9.

Even more impressive than the reduction in accidents per year is the decline in the number of accidents per hunter. In 1972 there were only two spring turkey hunting accidents, approximately one per 10,000 hunters. The worst years on record were 1961 and 1973, when the Conservation Department recorded approximately one accident for every 1,800 spring turkey hunters. In contrast, this year's average was approximately one per 75,000 hunters, about 40 times fewer than in the bad old days before mandatory hunter education.

"We still have some bad years," said Bethel. "As recently as 2004, we had nine spring turkey hunting accidents, including one fatality. But the number of accidents per hunter has dropped dramatically, and the trend is downward. When we have a year like this, you can almost foresee the time when more than 100,000 hunters go through a three-week hunting season without anyone getting hurt. That's the goal."