If the Idaho Fish and Game Department gets its way, 10-year-olds would be allowed to hunt elk, deer, wolves and other big game starting this fall.
Under current law, hunters between 10 and 12 can hunt small game, but they cannot hunt big game — and no child under 10 can hunt at all.
A bill making its way through the state legislature aims to reduce the age limit for big game from 12 to 10. The goal is in part to stem the decline of youth participation in hunting.
Sales of youth licenses in Idaho have been steadily declining for at least two decades. Idaho sold 15,484 youth licenses in 1993, but fewer than 13,000 last year. That's a disturbing trend, considering the state has implemented a number of incentives to entice more kids into the woods.
"We think it's good to get kids involved at an early age," says Mike Demick, IFG information supervisor. "We've already lowered the cost of our various youth licenses, so this effort really isn't a money maker for us. It's about preserving a tradition that has a long and beneficial heritage in Idaho. Hunting is a big part of our culture and we want to see that it remains that way."
According to a study by natural resources research firm Responsive Management, it is good to get kids involved in hunting at an early age. Adults who started hunting before they turned 16 had a much greater enthusiasm for the sport than those who started at a later age.
The later a hunter enters the sport, the less likely he is to remain in it. Further, the Responsive Management research determined that adults who hunted at least once before they turned 12 hunted more frequently than those who got a later start.
Not everyone is happy with the idea, though. Demick says opposition and support seem to be evenly split among Idaho residents. Surprisingly, much of the opposition is from hunters. Some fear younger hunters are incapable of grasping the impact of taking an animal's life. Others are concerned kids under 12 are simply are not skilled enough to make clean shots on deer, elk and other big game.
Steve Rinella, host of Sportsman Channel's MeatEater, recently sat on a panel hosted by Fox News to discuss the potential change in Idaho's legislation.
"I think it's fantastic," Rinella said. "What we're talking about is getting kids at a younger age into the outdoors with family members, mentors, carrying on a tradition."
Others, however, like Michael Kay, former adviser to the U.K. defense ministry, was outraged.
"You can't drink until you're 21, yet we're suggesting putting a high-powered rifle with a bullet in a 10-year-old's hand and telling him to take down a target with a heartbeat," Kay said on the Fox News panel.
"There are only three good reasons you take down a target with a heartbeat: First, if the target is trying to kill you; second, if the target is about to kill someone else; third, if you're hungry. I think there are better things that can occupy 10-year-olds than taking down targets with heartbeats."
Kay — who seems to be confusing hunting with military combat — clearly represents one variation of the anti-hunter position, but even some Idaho hunters hesitated at first, albeit for different reasons.
"One guy who called me was nervous about allowing 10-year-olds to hunt by themselves," recalls Demick. "He agreed that getting more kids involved in hunting was a good thing, but when I reminded him that this new proposal required all kids have an adult close enough to maintain control, he seemed to feel better about it."
United States Sportsmen's Alliance Vice President of Government Affairs Evan Heusinkveld says that's the great thing about Idaho's bill: It mirrors other recent efforts to reduce barriers to hunting in other states. They all require young hunters, typically those under 12, be under the direct supervision of an adult.
So far, 35 states have adopted new rules that make it easier for kids to hunt. More than 1 million new hunters have entered the sport thanks in part to legislation known as Families Afield, a legislative template that has been used throughout the country to remove barriers to hunter recruitment such as age restrictions.
"It's been a huge success, to say the least," says Heusinkveld. "No state has made any attempt to repeal efforts to reduce barriers to hunting since they passed them. Every state that has adopted some form of Families Afield legislation has had positive results."
Not only has it helped attract new hunters, it's also proven to be safe. Heusinkveld adds data compiled by the USSA have shown that mentored hunters are five times safer than the general hunting population.
"The age a child starts hunting should not be determined by government. It should be up to parents," says Heusinkveld. "They know when their own children are ready to hunt. The great thing about this is that the parent will be right their with their child, so there is no safety risk. We know that mentored hunters are more likely to stay in the sport and we know they will grow up to be safer hunters. It's a win-win."