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Youth Hunting Bill Nears Final OK

A Yankton businessman who heads a national archery federation says a hunting mentoring program in South Dakota could benefit young people as well as boost the popularity of all hunting.

Bruce Cull, who owns Dakota Archery and Outdoor Sports, also serves as president of the National Field Archery Association (NFAA). He has been instrumental in bringing national archery tournaments to Yankton and in nationally promoting the outdoors.

Contacted this week at an out-of-state event, Cull said he could not comment specifically on HB1263, a mentoring bill which has passed the South Dakota House 41-28 and has reached the Senate floor. However, Cull has seen mentoring programs succeed elsewhere.

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"We lobby for (mentoring programs) in several states, and the outcome is that the whole thing gets the kids involved in hunting," he said. "The bottom line is pretty simple. The irrefutable evidence is that the time spent (by young people) with their parents is time not spent sitting in front of the TV."

HB1263 would allow a 10-year-old to hunt without getting a license if the youngster is accompanied by a parent or guardian who has a hunting license but does not carry a gun.

Gun-safety courses would have to be completed by the adult mentors before those as young as 10 could hunt with them. The bill would let 10- through 15-year-olds hunt big game and small game without being licensed to hunt.

State law currently sets the minimum hunting age at 12. However, 11-year-olds can hunt if they will turn 12 later in the fall hunting season. State law also allows people to hunt small game on their own land without a license.

Hunting and conservation groups see the need to promote enjoyment of the outdoors and wildlife among young people, Cull said.

"In general, we support anything that will get the kids outside, doing any type of outdoors activities," he said.

The promotion of youth hunting can also build stronger families, Cull said.

"We have more and more single-parent families," he said. "The parents don't get the opportunity to do something with their young sons and daughters, and this (mentoring program) helps out."

The effort to reach young people has already proven successful in other states, Cull said. He pointed across the river to Knox County, Neb., which offers its own youth mentoring program.

"The Knox County mentoring program is specifically for pheasant hunting," he said. "The leader of the Pheasants Forever (chapter) started the program."

South Dakota, like other states, has also added special youth hunting seasons, Cull said.

"We have youth pheasant, youth waterfowl and other youth seasons in South Dakota," he said. "Some states have special hunting for youth - some for a week, some an entire season."

While the South Dakota hunter mentoring bill has reached its final legislative hurdle, the measure has drawn critics. Senate Agriculture Committee members heard from both sides Thursday before passing the bill 7-2 and sending it to the entire Senate.

People who teach gun-safety classes testified on both sides of the issue. Some said 10-year-olds are ready to hunt, especially if accompanied by mentors. Others said 10 is far too young, adding that many 12-year-olds who take the classes are not physically or mentally prepared for the rigors of hunting.

Critics said the bill could actually result in even fewer youngsters continuing to hunt. The young people may not be ready for the sight of an injured or killed deer or other wildlife, critics said.

In addition, it's not a good idea to let a 10-year-old hunt before he is old enough to take classes, an opponent of the bill said. And one shooting accident with a 10-year-old could turn public opinion against the sport, he added.

However, the bill has support from the Game, Fish and Parks Department. The GF&P receives revenue from hunting licenses and would set rules for the mentoring program.

Support also came from the National Rifle Association (NRA), whose lobbyist said a half-dozen states have passed similar legislation in the last year or so. The lobbyist said the number of licensed hunters in the nation fell from 15 million in 1982 to 12 million in 2004. He said, even in South Dakota, only 72 people are taking up hunting for every 100 who quit the sport.

District 17 Rep. Jamie Boomgarden (R-Chancellor), who co-sponsored the bill, said the mentoring aspect has won support for the measure. Last year, a bill to set the minimum hunting age at 10 got just 20 votes in the 70-member House.

"There have been changes from last year to a more youth mentoring bill," he said. "This is for people to bring their kids, if they aren't sure they want to pursue hunting."

The mentoring program could bring an added benefit by helping adults sharpen up on their own hunting knowledge and skills, Boomgarden said.

"This is a pretty good bill because it requires education and certification for the adult hunting with the child, most often the parent," he said. "Many times, the adult can use training to fix some poor habits they may have as well."

The bill carries a number of safeguards and emphasizes safety, Boomgarden said.

"Only the child is allowed to carry the hunting rifle or shotgun, and the mentor must be close enough in order to take over physical control of the gun in case something unsafe occurs," he said. "This does not mean that, just because (young people) are 10 years old, they must be allowed to go hunting. This means that the parent must use common sense regarding the child's abilities and safety, whether to go hunting or not."

"In no way should this replace the hunter safety courses that are available for youth hunters," he added.

The mentoring program would benefit not only rural kids but also young people from larger communities who don't have as many outdoors opportunities, Boomgarden said.

"They start learning some of the basic techniques with their parents or other mentors," he said. "Then, (the youths) know those things before they take the actual hunter safety course."

Boomgarden likened the hunting program to allowing young drivers to operate on a restricted license at 14. Parents can decide whether to let their children drive at an earlier age and can also teach them good driving skills, he said.

"I grew up on a farm and was driving in the fields, and I had the basic skills before I actually took the driving course," he said. "I pretty well had the knowledge and the safety things."

Cull pointed to the success of the national "Archery in the Schools" program as an example of teaching skills at an early age.

"South Dakota adopted it last year. It's a combined effort with our Game, Fish and Parks and the Department of Education. We work together, and it has brought tremendous benefits," he said.

"We became the 43rd state, and now there are 49 states with the program. We have 2 million kids go through it. The absentee and dropout rates in certain (urban) schools have gone way down with our after-school programs. A lot of inner-city kids have never been exposed to hunting before. On the days we have archery, more kids are in attendance."

The hunting experience does more than teach young people how to operate a gun or bow and arrow, Cull said.

"They receive such an education," he said. "There is something about the outdoors and learning how nature works, how food gets on the table."

The young hunters also develop different aspects of their personality and gain self-confidence, Cull said.

"Hunting is such an individual thing," he said. "You see (young people) grow in their proficiency. The best teacher is experience."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.