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Mentored program for young hunters stays the same, for now

| Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, 5:45 p.m.

The debate about whether to allow parents to decide when their kids are old enough to start hunting in Pennsylvania is not over, but it may be changing.

Prior to 2006, a youngster had to be at least 12 years old to buy a hunting license. Starting that year, however, the state launched its mentored youth hunting program. It removed the minimum age.

The program has largely been considered a success. Since the Pennsylvania Game Commission began tracking participation in 2009, it had sold almost 127,000 mentored youth hunting permits, with the total increasing steadily. For the 2012-13 hunting year, 33,390 permits have been sold.

Young hunters have a better safety record than do older hunters, according to statistics tracking Pennsylvania's program and others like it around the country.

But Game Commissioner Ron Weaner of Adams County said he has heard complaints from sportsmen. They see pictures in newspapers of children as young as 4 and 5 posing with deer they've supposedly killed and just don't believe it, he said.

To address that, he recently suggested the board make 8 years old the minimum hunting age. That idea didn't get enough support to pass, though, so no changes will be made.

Commission president Bob Schlemmer of Export, who was on the committee that originally pushed for the mentor program, was among those who opposed the idea, saying a return to a minimum age would be a step back. Commissioner Ralph Martone of New Castle agreed, adding that every major sportsmen's organization in the state supports the program as is.

“The last thing I want to see is us put a black eye on that,” Martone said.

Commissioner Dave Schreffler of Bedford County said he's come to appreciate the program as a hunter recruitment and retention tool.

“My mind is changing about the minimum age because at some point you have to put trust in the parents and hunters out there who are trying to get kids started in hunting,” Schreffler said.

But a couple of other commissioners said they'd like to hear more debate on the issue. Dave Putnam of Centre County said that while the number of young children in the woods is just a small percentage of the total, an option might be to limit opportunities to hunt big game until they are “6 or 7 or something.”

Weaner said that might appeal to hunters and is hoping they will weigh in on the issue.

“I'm not sure where this will go. But I think it's worth discussing because a lot of people have talked to me about it,” Weaner said.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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