When Wisconsin’s roughly 600,000 deer hunters hit the woods on Saturday, Nov. 17 for the annual nine-day gun season, they could set a safety record by going three straight seasons without a shooting fatality.
That’s a mark no one imagined during the 1900s, and yet this will be the third time this decade deer hunters try reaching that milestone. No deer hunters died in shooting accidents in 2010 or 2011, 2013 and 2014, or 2016 and 2017.
One hunter was shot dead during the 2012 season, and another died from a self-inflicted arrow wound when his loaded crossbow discharged while he tied it to his treestand’s haul rope.
Three hunters died of gunshots during the 2015 firearms season. One was self-inflicted, one occurred when a woman on a ladder handed a loaded rifle to a man in a treestand, and the other occurred when a hunter in another group shot a hunter walking through nearby pines.
Shooting deaths during gun-deer seasons this decade are averaging one every other year. If that trend continues through 2019, Wisconsin would end the decade with five shooting fatalities — roughly one-fourth the totals from 1990-1999 and 2000-2010, when shooting deaths were 19 (1.9 annual average) and 21 (2.1 average), respectively.
In fact, the previous two decades were considerably safer than the 1984-1989 gun seasons, which endured 22 shooting fatalities, a 3.66 annual average. Wisconsin made blaze orange mandatory on deer hunters’ hats and torsos in 1980, making them far more visible than before. Red hunting clothes were required during deer seasons from 1945 through 1979.
Deer hunting’s accident reports during much of the 1900s read like horror tales. Twelve deer hunters died of gunshots in 1900, 24 were killed and 26 wounded in 1914, and 13 were shot dead in 1970.
Records kept by the Department of Natural Resources didn’t report deer-license numbers for 1900, but Wisconsin sold 155,000 deer tags in 1914. That means one of every 6,459 deer hunters died of gunshots that year. The DNR sold 501,799 deer licenses in 1970, which put the shooting-fatality rate at one in every 38,600 hunters, a six-fold improvement from 1914.
If deer hunters today got shot at 1914’s rate, we could expect 93 fatalities and 101 woundings during this year’s Nov. 17-25 season. And if we matched the 1970 shooting rate, we could expect 16 gun deaths this season.
Instead, though, the deadliest deer seasons the past 34 years were five shooting deaths in 1984 and 2001, and eight in 1987. Wisconsin also recorded three shooting deaths during deer seasons in 1986, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1994, 2005, 2007 and 2008.
DNR records show deer hunting grew increasingly safer the past 55 years. The accident rate per 100,000 deer hunters was 27 from 1964 to 1973, 15 from 1974 to 1982, 10 from 1983 to 1992, 6.4 from 1993 to 2002 and 4.0 from 2003 to 2013.
Blaze-orange and other fluorescent-colored clothes in pink or chartreuse help, but the state also benefits from the DNR’s extensive hunter-education program. Todd Schaller, the agency’s chief warden, said the DNR has more than 3,200 volunteer hunter-ed instructors, and 885 field-day certified instructors for its online safety course. These instructors conducted 723 hunter-education courses in 2017, and 104 internet field-day courses.
The DNR also aired 71 safety-awareness spots over six weeks on 82 radio stations last year, and reached over 34,000 people with Facebook posts on firearms safety.
Other factors that improved safety are fewer largescale deer drives, and more hunters watching from treestands and other elevated devices. Not only do treestands improve visibility, but most shots fired from above angle downward for less risk of ricochets.
Combined, all those factors make gun-deer seasons today far safer than anything known to previous generations of deer hunters.
This is the fourth year in which hunters can register their deer online or by phone. That task becomes even more convenient if you download the DNR’s “Hunt Wild Wisconsin” mobile app, which is available for iPhones and Androids.
The app also helps hunters buy licenses, plan trips, verify shooting hours, check game regulations, find state-owned hunting lands, download maps and aerial photos, “scout” properties electronically from aerial photographs, and pinpoint their location in real-time.
If you hunt areas without cellular coverage, simply download your maps, regulations and aerial photos before leaving home, and store them in your mobile device. If your phone has GPS capabilities, you can track and pinpoint your whereabouts on the downloaded maps and photos without a cellular signal.
About the only thing the app won’t do this fall is help hunters find testing sites to get their deer checked for chronic wasting disease. That task is under consideration and might be added later, said Scott Karel, the DNR’s program and policy analyst. “We’re getting about eight to 10 ideas daily on what else would be useful for hunters,” he said. “The app is designed for our customers, so we try to accommodate their requests.”