When asked why deer hunting in the United States has become safer in the last half century, most experts cite mandatory hunter education training in all 50 states and the mandatory or widespread acceptance of bright orange clothing.
Colorado, for example, opened the door to safer hunting in the 1950s by offering voluntary hunter education training, then mandated the color bright orange in 1968. The state averaged 10.1 hunting deaths annually during the 1960s. , but has since dropped that average to one. 2000.
Wisconsin first taught the NRA’s hunter education course from 1962 to 1966 and then launched its own program in 1967. The state has certified 1.25 million hunters in the program’s 55-year history. It also required bright orange clothing in 1980 and hunter education certification in 1985. In the early 2000s, Wisconsin averaged four shots per 100,000 deer hunters a year, a nearly seven-fold improvement over 40 years before.
Alabama followed a similar path after averaging 9.5 shootings per 100,000 hunters during the 1970s. It mandated the color bright orange in 1985-86 for its gun deer season, and then hunter education in 1993- 94. Those moves cut Alabama’s accidental shooting rate nearly in half to five accidents per 100,000 hunters between 2000 and 2010. The rate dropped to 4.2 accidents per 100,000 in the past decade.
Also keep in mind that many white-tailed states had far more deer hunters in the last 30 years than they did during the 1950s and 1960s. Wisconsin, for example, had 432,000 gun deer hunters in 1966 and 695,000 in 2000 and, however, its deer hunting seasons have been nearly six times safer in the new century. Specifically, Wisconsin averaged 40 shots during its deer hunting seasons from 1950 to 1964, but only 7.3 shots annually in the last 18 seasons.
In fact, Wisconsin suffered just six fatal deer season shootings in the last 12 years, and no one was killed by a gunshot in eight of its last 12 deer seasons. That’s a big difference from 1914, when the state recorded 24 shooting deaths during deer season, and 1959 and 1970, when it recorded 13 fatal shootings in both years. Wisconsin recorded its first fatality-free deer season in 1973, but then suffered at least one shooting death for 37 consecutive years before its current streak of safety began in 2010.
Despite the benefits and impacts of hunter education and bright orange clothing, those aren’t the only job security factors. Wildlife agencies are also spending more time and money on public service advertising before deer season to remind hunters of what they learned in hunter education classes.
Conservation wardens and hunter education instructors also attribute better equipment, safer tactics, tighter access, better ethics, and smaller hunting groups. Tim Lawhern worked as a Wisconsin Conservation Warden for 25 years and twice served as president of the International Hunter Education Association while on its board of directors from 1996 to 2010.
“Today you see better weapons and equipment and more controlled hunting scenarios than when I started my career in 1989,” Lawhern said. He said rifle scopes largely replaced iron sights in the late 1990s, and more hunters upgraded old lever-action rifles with exposed hammers and no safety. Later in his career, he too saw fewer hunters assembled for large-scale campaigns.
“Hunters are generally confined to smaller land now, are better dressed and equipped to sit and wait for deer, and generally shoot down from high blinds and trees, reducing ricochets,” Lawhern said. “And with smaller groups, you have fewer shooters and fewer potential victims. I also saw fewer people hunting after the first day or two. We hate to see fewer hunters out in the field, but it does reduce the potential for shooting incidents.”
Lawhern also said that subtle changes in the “social landscape” are undermining attitudes and behaviors that once created dangers. For example, most hunters today frown on careless behavior like “check the ground” or “shoot and classify.”
“Anything that makes someone carefully check the antlers, or wait for a clear view of vital signs, reduces careless shooting,” he said.
That was not always the case, which Aldo Leopold discussed in his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac. Leopold wrote: “A common denominator of all sporting codes is not to waste good meat. However, it is now a demonstrable fact that Wisconsin deer hunters, in their search for a legal buck, kill and abandon in the woods at least one doe, fawn, or buck for every two legal bucks taken. In other words, about half of hunters shoot any deer until they kill a legal deer.”
Leopold did not exaggerate about his contemporaries. He was aware of data later published by Burton Dahlberg and Ralph Guettinger in their 1956 book White-tailed deer in Wisconsin. They cited post-hunt reports, searches, and field studies by Leopold and others that documented these findings: Eight doe carcasses on a 300-acre property in 1928; 60 illegal deer for every legal $100 in 1938; 68 dead or injured males, females, and fawns left behind for every 100 legal males brought home in 1939; “an illegal kill equal to the legal kill, plus a crippling loss of legal dollars equal to one-third of the legal kill” in 1941; 130 illegal deer for every legal $100 in 1947; and 67 illegal deaths per 100 legal billy goats in 1948.
Worse yet, Dahlberg and Guettinger wrote, “Almost all the evidence collected in Wisconsin since 1941 indicates that these estimates…are, if anything, conservative.”
Lawhern said careless behavior still occurs, but no current survey reveals such carnage. “Hunters today are doing a better job of policing their ranks,” Lawhern said. “They are becoming vagrants and poachers, and they watch each other. They’ve stopped hunting people who don’t keep their fingers off the trigger. All those things add up to big differences.”