One hunting-related shooting fatality in Pennsylvania is too many.
Zero is the right number.
A new report by the state Game Commission has found that for the first time since it began documenting hunting and trapping-related shooting incidents in 1915, a tracking year has ended with no human fatalities in Pennsylvania.
Additionally in 2012, there was not a single shooting incident during the fall turkey season, and no incidents involving participants in the Mentored Youth Hunting Program.
Persistent hunter education courses and safety-related regulatory changes are largely responsible for influencing hunting culture and decreasing the number of shooting accidents in Pennsylvania, the state with the second highest hunting license sales after Texas. The Game Commission has good reason to crow.
"This is certainly good news, and I think it's probably the result of a lot of work from our instructors, and also the National Wild Turkey Federation and other programs, to just get the word out to clearly identify your target and know what's behind it," said Carl Roe, Game Commission executive director. "There's also the emphasis on using the proper arm at the proper time and proper place to have a safe hunt."
Thirty-three non-fatal hunting-related shooting incidents occurred among the state's 930,000 licensed hunters in 2012 -- a decrease from the previous year. The two leading causes of shooting incidents in 2012 were a sporting arm being carried in a dangerous position, and a shooting victim being in the line of fire. Each of the top causes accounted for 24 percent of the total.
The statistics are trending down. In 2011 Pennsylvania saw two hunting-related fatalities and 34 non-lethal shooting incidents, well below the 10-year average of 51.1 incidents per year. The report found Pennsylvania hunting-related shooting incidents had declined by nearly 80 percent since hunter education training began as a voluntary program in 1959. Before that, hunting fatalities were high -- one year saw more than 60 deaths.
Long-time hunter-trapper safety instructor Bill Chessman of Forest Hills completed his safety course in 1961.
"Back then, before the courses, some of our hunters had been in World War II and were engaged in practices in the field that were not what you should be doing when you're hunting," he said. "They were having too many accidents."
Chessman became a safety instructor while still in college in 1968, a year before hunter education was required of new hunting license holders age 16 and under. In 1982 safety certification was required of all new hunters regardless of age.
Chessman continued leading hunter safety courses while working as a teacher in the Wilkinsburg School District. Now retired, he still volunteers as a safety instructor and is a past recipient of the Game Commission's Southwest Region Hunter-Trapper Education Instructor of the Year award.
"The main thing is you make sure other hunters see you, and make sure you see your target and what's behind it," Chessman said.
Like all states and Canadian provinces, Pennsylvania bases its course on curricula developed by the National Rifle Association. But the Game Commission adds some variations including safety training specific to turkey hunting and tree stands. Pennsylvania is the only state with a mandatory trapping component to its hunter safety program.
Keith Snyder, head of the agency's hunter safety division, said a 20 percent increase in safety course graduates from 2008 (31,349) to 2012 (37,633) was due to scheduling more classes in September, October and November when new hunters are most interested in taking them.
Regulations have also evolved to provide a safer hunt. Requirements for wearing fluorescent orange, better enforcement of hunting hours and restrictions on when and how hunters can use specific sporting arms contributed to the growth of a more cautious and safer hunting culture in Pennsylvania.
"The trend in two-party incidents is also going down," Snyder said. "Used to be that 75 percent of all incidents involved two parties. Now it's more toward 50-50. The only real way to combat self-inflicted injuries is with more eduction reminding them to control the muzzle."
Now at the end of a five-year plan for hunter education, Roe said the agency is "modernizing the curricula" to better reach a new generation of hunters. Traditionally a 10-hour course taking two days, the general hunter-trapper safety course has been trimmed to six hours in a single day with a pre-class Internet-based home study component, and in-class video and digital presentation.
Additional independent study courses are considered tougher, but permit students to do all the study at home before classroom testing. A mandatory course certifies cable restraint trappers, and voluntary classes stress safety and strategies for archery, turkey hunting and fur taking.
"We've made an incredible jump in safety," Snyder said, "making hunting a safe experience for everybody in the woods."