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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Deer Hunting Today is 6 Times Safer than 60 Years Ago

When Wisconsin’s roughly 590,000 deer hunters head out Nov. 20 for the annual nine-day gun season, we’ll find the deer woods far safer than what our predecessors knew six decades ago.

Even though Wisconsin has nearly twice as many deer hunters today than it did in the 1950s, we’re nearly six times safer. Deer seasons from 1950 to 1964 averaged 40 shootings annually, but we’ve averaged 7.4 such incidents annually the past 15 seasons.

And when we compare shooting fatalities, deer hunting today is 11 times safer. The 1950-1964 deer seasons averaged eight shooting fatalities annually, ranging from three in 1962 to 13 in 1959. Starting in 2006, Wisconsin has averaged 0.73 shooting fatalities annually, a run that includes eight deer seasons with no fatal shootings, five seasons with one fatality, and two seasons (2007 and 2015) with three fatalities.

In fact, if not for a lone fatality a year ago when a 65-year-old Door County hunter shot himself in the chest, Wisconsin would have gone five straight deer seasons without a shooting death. The state recorded its first fatality-free deer season in 1973, but didn’t repeat that feat until 2010. It then went fatality-free again in 2011, as well as in 2013 and 2014 before its record-setting 2016 to 2019 streak without a shooting death.

DNR records show deer hunting grew steadily 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.

“Wisconsin has seen an incredibly positive trend the past half-century,” said Matt O’Brien, deputy chief warden for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “Every so often I’ll see an article from the ’50s or ’60s citing hunter injury/fatality numbers, and it’s foreign to our world today. Every hunter must make a deliberate effort to keep firearms safety in mind in our fields and forests. Complacency endangers hunters themselves, family and friends in their camp, and the public at large.”

Blaze orange clothing first hit the market around 1970, and Wisconsin made it mandatory on deer hunters’ hats and torsos in 1980 to make them more visible. Red hunting clothes were required during deer seasons from 1945 through 1979.

The past decade’s overall record is also roughly four times safer than the decades of the 1990-1999 and 2000-2010 deer seasons, when shooting deaths were 19 (1.9 annual average) and 21 (2.1 average), respectively.

The 1990s and 2000s, likewise, were considerably safer than the 1984-1989 gun seasons, which endured 22 shooting fatalities, a 3.66 annual average.

Safety records since the 1980s weren’t conceivable during most of the 1900s, when deer hunting’s accident reports read like horror tales. Wisconsin recorded 24 shooting deaths in 1914, and 13 in 1959 and 1970.

Deer season’s death toll also hit 12 in 1900, 1942, 1946 and 1948; and 11 during the 1938, 1939, 1957, 1958 and 1960 deer seasons. Otis Bersing’s 1966 edition of “A Century of Wisconsin Deer Hunting,” reported double-digit fatalities during nine of the 27 deer seasons he tracked from 1938 to 1964. Those seasons lasted five to nine days in most areas.

DNR records don’t include 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 over 90 fatalities and 100 woundings during this year’s Nov. 20-28 season. And if we matched the 1970 shooting rate, we could expect 15 gun deaths this season.

Actual deaths and woundings in Wisconsin haven’t combined to hit double digits since 2010 when 12 hunters were wounded. The deadliest deer seasons the past four decades 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 2015.

O’Brien said blaze-orange and other fluorescent-colored clothes in pink or chartreuse make hunters more visible, but the state also benefits from the DNR’s extensive hunter-education program. The agency has over 3,000 volunteer hunter-ed instructors, as well as hundreds of field-day certified instructors for its online safety course.

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 treestands and elevated box blinds drive downward into the ground, making bullets less likely to ricochet.

Combined, all those factors make gun-deer seasons today far safer than anything known to previous generations.

New Challenges, Old Problems:

Many hunters today complain of too-few deer across the Northwoods, but they aren’t the first generation to say that. It’s been a common lament since their grandfathers and great-grandfathers said much the same thing during the early 1960s, according to Bersing. Consider his March 1966 reflections in the preface of “A Century of Wisconsin Deer Hunting.” He wrote:

“The major deer areas are changing. The central and southwestern counties, with their decreasing agriculture, continue to produce more and more deer. The north country is growing up. Many hunting areas once available are now solid and extensive monotype stands of pole-sized hardwoods that offer no browse and poor cover. Consequently, the situation makes habitat management difficult. Deer like openings and mixed young or uneven stands. They do not get along well in middle-aged or mature forests. …

“If the whitetails had adopted the characteristics of the caribou, among which the females normally have antlers, deer management and season regulations would invite considerably less controversy.”

Bersing wrote that 55 years ago, and Wisconsin’s Northern forest has only grown older since. Meanwhile, female whitetails still don’t grow antlers, and many hunters remain hostile to botany and biology.

If only science were as easily understood and embraced as blaze orange and firearms safety.

Many hunters in the late 1800s and early 1900s died of gunshots in accidental shootings during deer season. In 1914 alone, 24 deer hunters died in shootings.

— Wisconsin Historical Society photo

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