Sunday, January 8, 2012

'Families Afield' Legislation Leads to Windfall of New Hunters


The idea was perceived as crazy by many people at the time.
Early in the 2000s, a coalition of sportsmen led by Scottdale resident Ron Fretz, then a member of the National Wild Turkey Federation's national board of directors, announced its intent to see Pennsylvania's minimum hunting age eliminated.

Give kids younger than 12 years old guns and send them into the woods? Ludicrous, some said. The effort moved forward, though, and in 2004, Pennsylvania became the first state in the country to pass so-called "Families Afield" legislation, which allows children to hunt at any age without first having to take a hunter-safety course, provided they go afield with an adult mentor.

The idea has caught on. Thirty-two states across the country have adopted similar programs, resulting in about 600,000 new hunters, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Some are coming from non-traditional audiences. Research done in Minnesota has shown that while 28 percent of resident hunters come from the Twin Cities, about 42 percent of apprentice hunters come from that metropolitan area.

Many are sticking around long-term. In Ohio, research shows that about half of all apprentices are hunting three years later.

Pennsylvania, too, has done well. Game Commission spokesman Joe Kosack said that, over the past three years, the agency has sold nearly 90,000 permits to "mentored" youth.
In other ways, though, the state has fallen behind.

The groups behind Families Afield today go into states with three goals in mind: Make it possible for mentored or apprentice hunters to be able to hunt all species; try hunting regardless of age; and be able to carry their own firearm, said Rob Sexton, senior vice president of the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance.

Pennsylvania does not permit those goals.

The lack of an adult apprentice program is especially big, Sexton said.
"It doesn't matter if they're 10 or 30 years old. We just want more hunters in the field," Sexton said. All of that might soon prompt a return to Pennsylvania by Families Afield supporters.

"Ideally, I think we might return as soon as the next legislative session, maybe as soon as 2013, to work on eliminating some of those restrictions," Sexton said.

If so, the state where Families Afield began might move to the forefront again

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