Montana is well-known as one of the best states for offering quality hunting. But is Montana a youth-friendly hunting state?
I was browsing through a recent Outdoor Life magazine when I came across a photo of a young hunter pictured with a nice whitetail buck. This was one of two deer the young hunter harvested last fall.
But this 11-year-old hunter from Bozeman had to leave Montana to hunt with his dad. Montana doesn’t allow hunting until kids are 12.
National statistics indicate that hunter numbers are slowly going down, even with an increasing national population and ample game to hunt. Montana has a similar declining number of hunters.
Experts point to two reasons for this decline. First is the increasing urbanization of our American society. As fewer Americans live in the country and small towns, it becomes increasing difficult to walk out your back door to hunt. Many public land managers make it increasingly difficult to hunt by restricting road access to public land.
Some backcountry hunters like public land with little or no easy public road access because it reduces competition from other hunters and increases the likelihood that game can reach old age and trophy size, but the bottom line is that difficult road access means fewer hunters.
The access problem becomes even more acute as the average age of our hunting population increases. Older hunters do not have the stamina to hunt far from a road. As older hunters give up hunting, the recruitment of new young hunters does not replace older hunters.
We are finding that when kids reach the age of 12, their recreation activities are already firmly established. So there is a national effort to allow kids to hunt at an earlier age, allowing them to establish hunting as part of their lifestyle. States with no hunting age or lower hunting ages than 12 tend to have higher recruitment of young hunters into the ranks of hunting, to replace older hunters.
Several years ago, some national hunting and sportsman associations developed a Families Afield hunting recruitment program that allowed moms, dads and grandparents to decide when their sons and daughters were old enough to hunt. Under the Families Afield guidelines, over 30 states have recently passed laws allowing hunting at an earlier age.
The hunting guidelines vary somewhat from state to state, but basically, these new laws allow younger kids to buy apprentice hunting licenses. These apprentice hunters can only hunt with a responsible adult hunting alongside them; usually, that is dad or grandpa.
Are these apprentice hunters safe hunters? The answer is yes. Of the million apprentice hunters licensed in the last five years, there were only 11 shooting incidents. This compares to about 50 shooting incidents per million regular licensed hunters. When apprentice hunters reach the age of 12, they must still take the mandatory hunters education course before they can hunt alone.
Family Afield legislation was introduced in Montana’s last legislative session but it failed to pass. The adjoining states of Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota have already passed similar legislation. Many states allow young hunters to buy licenses very cheap and some even allow kids up to the age of 16 to hunt free.
It is time for Montana to come into the 21st century and introduce young hunters to Montana’s hunting heritage.