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Faced with fewer hunters, W.Va. may offer gun training in schools

Jan. 30, 2008 @ 11:17 PM

CHARLESTON -- A significant drop in the number of hunters in West Virginia has left multimillion dollar holes in the state's budget and one lawmaker thinks he has the solution: allow children to receive hunter training in school.

Children would be instructed in everything from survival skills to gun safety, but the guns would either have dummy ammunition or be disabled in some way. Sen. Billy Wayne Bailey, who introduced the bill, doesn't envision West Virginia's middle-schoolers firing real guns during class time.

"It's a way to take this kind of education in the classroom and make it more convenient for young people," the Wyoming County Democrat said.

West Virginia, where roughly 320,000 people participated in the gun season for bucks, may be the only state in the country contemplating such a bill, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Hunting is a huge part of life in West Virginia but, mirroring a national trend, the number of hunters buying permits has been declining for years.

The state sold 154,763 hunting permits to residents in 2006, according to the Division of Natural Resources, a 17 percent drop from 1997. Although West Virginia still ranks in the top six nationally for sales of nonresident permits, the decline is being felt at the state Capitol.

This month, Gov. Joe Manchin proposed spending $1.8 million on DNR's law enforcement efforts to make up for revenue lost due to the decline of hunting and fishing permits.

"West Virginia is probably in better shape than other states, but this is really rather disconcerting from our perspective," said DNR Assistant Chief of Wildlife Management Paul Johansen.

Nationally, the number of hunters 16 and older stands at roughly 12.5 million, a decline of 10 percent from 1996 to 2006, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Part of West Virginia's problem is it doesn't require senior citizens to purchase a license for hunting, and the state has one of the oldest populations per capita in the nation. But the ranks of hunters aren't being replenished by young people, which Bailey said is part of the motivation for his bill.

"Hunting is a way of life in West Virginia," he said.

To secure a hunting license, residents have to be at least 10 years old on the day of the test. They have to complete a minimum of 10 hours of training, focusing on areas like gun safety and survival skills.

The test for the $33 license includes a written portion and a demonstration of proper gun safety, according to Lt. Tim Coleman of the DNR. Would-be hunters have to show they can load and unload a gun safely, carry it across obstacles and keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction.

Offering hunter training as a voluntary course in schools would allow greater access for students who can't set aside the time to take the class, usually on Saturdays, or have trouble traveling the distance to where courses are offered, Bailey said.

The move would be welcomed by hunting groups, which have been watching the decline with alarm.

Three such groups -- the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance and the National Wild Turkey Federation -- have created an initiative called Families Afield, designed to get more young people hunting in part by lobbying states to reduce restrictions on young hunters.

Since the effort began in 2004, the group points to legislative successes in 12 states.

"The hunting population in general is aging, and it's not being replaced by young hunters," said Tony Aeschliman, spokesman for the Newtown, Conn.-based National Shooting Sports Foundation. "Those states who are aggressive about recruiting and retaining new hunters, though, are seeing some very positive results."

The decline in hunters is something that should be celebrated, though, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which said Wednesday the West Virginia bill is a bad idea.

"Americans are compassionate people, and that's why hunting is on the decline," said activist liaison Nicole Matthews. "Instead of teaching kids to be insensitive to suffering, we should be helping them appreciate nature in ways that aren't destructive."

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