MADISON, Wis. - Wisconsin lawmakers moved Thursday to lower the hunting age by two years to 10 and offer youngsters reduced license fees in an effort to preserve the state's hunting culture.
Under the plan approved by the Assembly on a voice vote, anyone 10 or older could hunt with an adult mentor without taking a safety course beforehand. The pairs could have only one gun or bow between them and must stay within arm's reach of one another. Mentors would have to be at least 18 and have hunting licenses.
"It's important for us to include young people in the activities that a lot of us hold near and dear," said Rep. Scott Gunderson, R-Waterford, who has pushed for years to lower the hunting age. "This is about our heritage."
The mentorship program is designed to attract not only more young hunters but adults who want to "test drive" the sport, said Randy Stark, chief conservation warden for the Department of Natural Resources. He said he expects to see more women hunt with the program.
The plan was approved by the Senate 27-6 last week and now goes to Gov. Jim Doyle. The governor's spokesman said he supports the bill but stopped short of promising to sign it.
"The governor appreciates the tradition of handing down hunting from one generation to the next," spokesman Lee Sensenbrenner said. "We're just going to have to take a look at the language once it reaches his desk."
Thirty states have no minimum hunting age and 28 have created apprenticeship programs similar to what is proposed in Wisconsin, according to the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, which lobbied for the bill. The state programs vary in minimum age, safety requirements and license fees.
Minnesota already allows kids as young as 10 to hunt big game in a change of law that went into effect last year. It allows youths 10 and 11 years old to hunt deer and other big game in Minnesota with high-caliber firearms and slug-shooting shotguns without first passing a hunter education and firearms safety course.
The youths must be under direct supervision of an adult licensed hunter, and the adults must be within “arm’s reach’’ of their proteges.
Minnesota also allows youths 10 and under to hunt small game, if they are accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.
The Wisconsin measure comes in response to concerns that there may be fewer hunters as young people lose interest and aging baby boomers give up the sport. The program would start Sept. 1, in time for the fall deer gun season that attracted more than 640,000 hunters last year in Wisconsin.
The original plan would have kept the fees for youth at current levels, which are $20 for a deer license and $9 for a small game license. But both houses adopted an amendment creating a $4.25 license fee for children who are 10 and 11 in an attempt to attract more interest.
The DNR estimates the bill will mean at least an additional 9,200 hunters in Wisconsin every year. Current law allows children who are 12 to hunt under adult supervision if they have passed a safety course. Hunters who are 14 can go out alone.
Many apprentices will probably decide hunting is not for them, Stark said. But others may decide to take safety courses to receive licenses to hunt on their own. The DNR charges $10 for the course and expects an additional 2,000 people to enroll each year.
Rep. Ann Hraychuck, D-Balsam Lake, a hunting safety instructor, said hunting with a mentor "has proven to be the safest way for kids to hunt."