Gov. Walker eliminates Wisconsin's minimum hunting age

MADISON -- Children of any age can hunt in Wisconsin starting Monday, after Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill that eliminates the state's minimum age.

Walker quietly signed the Republican bill Saturday, exactly a week before the state's nine-day gun deer hunting season opens. The law went into effect Monday. Kids will have to wait five days before they can start shooting deer, but they can participate in several seasons already underway, including bow deer, pheasant, ruffed grouse, rabbit and squirrel.

A Wisconsin resident must be at least 12 years old to purchase a hunting license or hunt with a gun. However, until now children as young as 10 could participate in a mentored hunt. That program allows the child to hunt with a mentor who is at least 18 and has gone through a hunter safety course or had military training if they're younger than 44. The mentor and student could only have one gun between them, and they had to stay within arm's reach of one another.

The new law allows children of any age to participate in a mentored hunt and allows mentor and student to carry their own weapon.

Thirty-four other states have no minimum hunting age. Several groups, including Whitetails Unlimited and the National Rifle Association, registered in favor of the Wisconsin bill. The proposal still generated fierce opposition from minority Democrats and child safety advocates. Republicans pushed ahead anyway, saying parents should be allowed to decide whether their children are ready to kill an animal and that the measure will attract more children to hunting.

Rep. Joel Kleefisch, an avid hunter and chairman of the Assembly Natural Resources and Sporting Heritage Committee, said Monday that he allowed his 11-year-old daughter to shoot a wild hog on a Michigan game preserve when she was eight. He proudly displayed a video of her squeezing the trigger and a photo of her standing next to the dead pig with her rifle.

"This bill will allow responsible hunters to get kids off the couch and off the electronics and into the woods," Kleefisch said. "There's nothing more exciting than seeing the look on someone's face when they harvest their first animal."

It's unclear how many children under 10 may take to the woods over the next few weeks. State Department of Natural Resources James Dick said Monday that he didn't have any data yet on how many mentored hunting licenses had been sold since the law took effect.

George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said he doubted many children under 10 will take up arms and head out in search of a deer.

"It's new, right before the season," Meyer said. "People already have their hunting plans scheduled. But there will be some people, those who followed the bill. You surely will see some."

The federation opposed the bill because of the provision allowing student and mentor to each carry a weapon. Meyer said a mentor engaged in hunting won't pay as much attention to the student.

Jeri Bonavia is executive director of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, a group that works to end gun violence that registered against the bill. She said the law could create situations in which parents drive their children to the woods, help them out of their car seats then hand them a rifle. She said that's not such an outlandish scenario since state law requires children as old as seven and eight to use car seats and booster seats.

"Giving a firearm to a child when they can't understand the consequences is just incredibly foolish," she said. "I honestly don't think there are a lot of Wisconsin moms and dads really pushing for this or desiring this, so I don't know if it will be a very common practice. I certainly hope not."