Italy’s hunting scene looks a bit like Wisconsin’s — circa 1960s.

Published reports showed the first weeks of Italy’s fall hunting season, which started in September, saw 13 Italians killed and 33 wounded. Reuters News Service in late October also reported a bicyclist, a gardener and a teenager were among those hit by bullets meant for animals. While a national debate is under way in Italy about how to improve the safety of all during the country’s fall hunting season, Italian hunters could learn a few things by reading Wisconsin’s hunter safety history. That history showcases the development of an effective educational program that stresses how to shoot only intended targets by using firearm safety techniques and how to use other modern-day devices to ensure a safe and enjoyable outing.

Still, Wisconsin can empathize with Italy. The Badger State also had its share of rough hunting seasons decades ago. In fact, the year before hunter education courses began in Wisconsin, the hunting incident rate was 44 injuries for every 100,000 hunters. But that was 1966.

Safety course starts in ’67; smart phones follow

The precursor to today’s statewide Department of Natural Resources’ Hunter Education Program was launched in 1967 with a six-hour course stressing firearm safety only.

Forty-five years later and an expanded hunter education course available in-person and online, Wisconsin has recorded three gun-deer seasons free of fatalities (1972, 2010 and 2011) plus fewer and fewer incidents. That record is due to a statewide hunter safety culture enforced by the DNR Hunter Education Program’s army of dedicated, experienced volunteer instructors who have instilled skills, responsibility and ethics in the program’s more than one million graduates. About 28,000 students are trained each year.

Conservation Warden Jon King, who heads the Hunter Education Program, says it’s no accident hunting in Wisconsin is a safe, fun activity for the entire family. “And it is getting safer with each year,” he says.

Wisconsin has a fatality rate per 100,000 of .28 percent when considering a 10-year period. Consider the state’s dedication to hunter education and, King says, it’s easy to see how going hunting is safer than driving to work.

In 1985, Wisconsin’s hunter education certification program became mandatory for all hunters born or after Jan. 1, 1973. That meant any hunter age 12 had to complete the program.

And, King says, there are even more factors supporting Wisconsin’s safe hunting atmosphere. “There has been the creation of reasonable opening and closing hours for hunting, mandatory blaze orange for hunters, the use of full safety harnesses for treestand use, global positioning satellite devices, smart phones and more,” King says.

While there are new technologies and equipment to enjoy, King says there are the sound, reliable safety techniques that are always current — and it starts with firearm safety.

Four rules of firearm safety

Firearm hunting incidents in 2011 also followed the downward trend and came in below the 10-year average of 32 incidents annually. King is confident more can be prevented by following these four basic principles of firearm safety – also well-known as TABK:

  • Treat every firearm as if it is loaded
  • Always point the muzzle in a safe direction
  • Be certain of your target and what is beyond it
  • Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until ready to shoot

As important as TABK is, hunting safety also requires attention to where you hunt, how you get to that place and how well your hunting team understands the plan.

Tree stands, harnesses and deer drives

Tree stands and harnesses, and the popular group hunting method involving “deer drives,” also may pose some challenges unless done with safety in mind.

King suggests each deer drive be planned in advance, with safety as the top priority. “Everyone involved in the drive should know and understand the plan – and follow the plan. Always be sure of your target and beyond,” he says.

King says the dedication to safety practiced with firearm safety and the deer drive also must be a top priority when using the tree stand. Here are some of King’s easy tree stand tips to follow:

  • Always use a full-body harness.
  • Always unload your firearm while climbing into or out of the stand.
  • Use a rope or line to raise and lower your unloaded firearm
  • During the ascent or descent: maintain three points of contact — two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand.
  • And here are King’s deer drive tips:
  • Review the four firearm safety principles.
  • Reconfirm you have positively identified your target.
  • Reconfirm you have a safe backstop for your bullet.
  • Review and stick to your hunting plan. Make sure all in the hunting party follow it.

“By keeping these tips in mind and being dedicated to using them, it will become second nature and safety becomes a reflex,” King says. “And that’s the goal – to have a safe, fun and successful hunt in Wisconsin where it’s all part of our heritage and tradition.”

Logo courtesy Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

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