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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Deer hunting is much safer today than in the past

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 11/2/22

It’s the opening of the regular firearms deer season in our area on Saturday and, like most recent years, the Department of Natural Resources is putting out its annual safety message. I know …

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Deer hunting is much safer today than in the past

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It’s the opening of the regular firearms deer season in our area on Saturday and, like most recent years, the Department of Natural Resources is putting out its annual safety message. I know some folks like to pooh-pooh such things. It’s become fashionable to dismiss those “nanny state” messages as just another example of government overreach.
But here’s the thing. All that nanny overreaching has made a huge difference when it comes to your odds of being shot while out in the woods this deer season.
In years past, heading out in the woods on the deer opener was akin to entering a war zone and it took a serious toll on hunters. I never realized just how much of a toll until I was paging through one of my mother’s scrap books and found a small clipping from the 1930s, naming one of her uncles as the victim of a deer hunting accident in northwestern Minnesota. He was one of the 11 reported fatalities just to that point in the season.
It wasn’t an anomaly. The DNR, it turns out, began keeping track of hunting accidents and fatalities back in the 1940s. The numbers in the past were simply shocking. In 1961, the year I was born, 29 deer hunters died in the field. And that was with about a quarter of the number of legal hunters out there today.
Granted 1961 was a bad year for deer hunters, even though the number of hunting accidents was relatively low. It was just that they were all fatal.
But throughout the 1960s and 70s, the number of hunting accidents was astonishing. In 1969, there were 140 hunting accidents reported, with 18 fatalities. In 1975, 14 hunters died out of 102 accidents.
In the 1960s alone, 142 hunters died in a total of 1,030 separate hunting accidents. It was a bloodbath out there and it finally prompted a sustained push for more hunter safety training. I remember taking the training myself back in 1975, with instructors from the National Rifle Association. That was back in the day when the NRA was interested in promoting gun safety rather than just guns. Back then, hunters ages 12-15 had to have a firearms safety certificate to buy big-game licenses, but adults, trained or not, could still go out with high-powered rifles.
In 1990, the Legislature approved a law requiring anyone born after Dec. 31, 1979 to complete a hunter safety course to buy any hunting license.
Has it all made a difference? Big time. Consider the following trend data, according to the DNR.
1960s: 1,030 accidents, 142 hunters killed.
1970s: 414 accidents, 49 hunters killed*
1980s: 146 accidents, 45 hunters killed.
1990s: 319 accidents, 29 hunters killed.
2000s: 251 accidents, 17 hunters killed.
2010s; 142 accidents, 16 hunters killed.
(*the deer season was cancelled in 1971 due to low deer numbers)
It’s worth noting that even as the number of accidents and fatalities has been declining, the number of hunters out in the woods has jumped sharply. In the 1970s, deer hunters in Minnesota purchased about 300,000 licenses on average. In 2020, deer hunters bought 883,323 licenses.
While any hunter fatality is too many, there’s no doubt that the education efforts have made a tremendous difference. The same trend has also been experienced in Wisconsin, again thanks to hunter education and the promotion of safety. Perhaps a little nannying now and then has its rewards.

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