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Sportsmen’s Alliance president pushes stronger enforcement of safety laws

February 19, 2012 at 03:56 PM

The Associated Press

When Sportsmen’s Alliance President David Schutz heard about the accidental shooting of a Norton woman by a hunter last December, he wrote police and Gov. Deval Patrick calling for action to revoke the man’s license.

It wasn’t a desire for retribution against the off-duty state trooper, who reportedly mistook the tail of one of the woman’s dogs for a deer, said Schutz, a Hingham resident.

Schutz said what he wants is for state officials to enforce safety laws. But he’s also making a point about the integrity of sport hunting.

“Usually, the only time people hear about hunters is when there’s an incident,” Schutz said.

Hunters, by and large, are careful, well-trained and respectful of the environment, he said, but they have gotten an undeserved black eye as a result of the Norton shooting and a few other unfortunate cases.

In Norton, Cheryl Blair, 66, was shot in the abdomen by the hunter while walking her two dogs on her own property. She remains hospitalized.

Investigators said the hunter, John Bergeron, 50, apparently mistook the pets for a deer and fired.

Local and state Environmental Police are still investigating. No action has yet been taken against Bergeron or his hunting license.

Schutz said the Norton shooting does not fit the pattern of a conscientious hunter. A typical hunter would carefully identify the animal he was shooting at before pulling the trigger. And that’s just one component of safe hunting to which sportsmen are expected to adhere, he said.

“What the general public doesn’t realize is that there’s a tremendous amount of preparation before hunters can go out into the woods,” said Schutz, who noted hunters must complete a mandatory hunter education course and obtain hunting and firearms licenses before they venture out after deer or other wildlife.

Hunters are expected to learn to carefully identify targets, know what animals they can and cannot hunt and obey state laws banning shooting near homes or public roads.

“You just don’t go out there and say, ‘Hey, let’s just go out and shoot some things,’” Schutz said.

Despite the image some might have of hunters as cavaliers killing for pleasure, Schutz said sportsmen on the whole are good stewards of the environment. Most hunters, he said, take only the game they or their families can consume as food. Hunting strictly for trophies is a rarity, he said.

Schutz added that hunting fulfills a needed function in controlling species — such as deer — that would otherwise overpopulate areas in which they live. About 10,800 deer were shot in Massachusetts during 2010, according to state harvest statistics, with smaller numbers of bear and other animals.

Regardless of the purpose, a number of environmental and animal rights groups are opposed to sport hunting.

The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, one of several groups that sued several years ago to stop pheasant hunting, condemns hunting on its website as a sport that subjects animals to unnecessary stress, suffering and wounding or death “solely for the entertainment of people.”

The organization rejects hunters’ arguments supporting hunting as a wildlife management tool, although it does recognize the need for killing for certain “well documented” humane or ecological reasons.

Linda Huebner, deputy director of advocacy for the MSPCA, says hunting could actually spur overpopulation among white-tailed deer by making more forage available to other members of the herd.

Joseph Miele of the Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting says incidents in which hunted animals are wounded but not killed are particularly troubling.

“Many animals who don’t die in the first 15 seconds run off and suffer or die of infection down the road,” he said.

There’s no way of knowing how many animals are shot and never found by their hunters, he said.

But sportsmen insist that hunting, properly and skillfully done, is neither unsafe nor cruel.

Foxborough lawyer Mark Stopa, an accomplished hunter who has stalked game from the Foxborough State Forest to the South African plains, said most hunters are particular about safety and identifying their quarry before they pull the trigger.

“If I can’t see and identify the animal, I don’t shoot,” Stopa said. “It’s critical as a hunter to be competent and skilled at what you’re doing. I want to be safe. I also don’t want to wound an animal and have it run off somewhere.”

Stopa has hunted pheasant in New Jersey, deer in Foxborough and wildebeest in South Africa, on the latter hunt accompanied by his wife and three daughters.

“Hunting is a sport that’s as demanding and exhilarating as any other sport I can name,” Stopa said.

And, he notes, being a successful hunter demands more than just being a dead shot. Hunters also need to know their quarry and their habits, study the terrain and practice marksmanship before they ever come close to making a kill.

Stopa doesn’t see hunting as selfish or insensitive to animals, and insists his sport has environmental and other benefits.

On a guided hunt in Africa four years ago, Stopa shot a number of animals and gave the meat to members of a local village who depend on local game farms for their food.

On all but one occasion, he dropped game ranging from a long-horned kudu to an elk-sized eland with a single shot.

Stopa displays the taxidermied heads of his kills in a room in his home that resembles the inside of an African hunting lodge.

Without hunting, overpopulation of game might become a serious problem, Stopa says. And hunters’ practice of concentrating on large, older males allows other members of the herd to mate and possibly strengthen the animals’ gene pool.

“Hunting is vitally necessary to the management of the herds,” he said.

Environmental arguments aside, hunting critics point to incidents like the Norton shooting, alleged poaching and cases involving violation of wildlife laws as proof that all hunters are not as careful as they should be.

In Massachusetts, accidental shootings and other injuries tied to hunting are relatively scarce.

In a state with 65,000 to 70,000 licensed hunters, the number of accidents reported to state Environmental Police over the past five years ranged from a low of eight in 2007 to a high of 14 in 2008. Victims are almost always the hunters themselves, said Marion Larson, outreach coordinator for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Passersby, like Cheryl Blair, are rare exceptions.

“Ninety-five percent of hunters I have encountered hunt safely, legally and ethically,” said Larson, a licensed gun owner. “Sometimes I like to say that I feel safer in the woods in hunting season than I would if I were running along a public road.”

All novice hunters must complete a state-run basic hunting course before they can qualify for a hunting license. The classes, held around the state, address gun safety, hunting laws and various aspects of hunting practice.

About 3,500 hunters take the course each year, state Fish and Wildlife education administrator Susan Langlois said. Anyone seeking a firearms permit anywhere in the state also is required to take a training course.

Once licensed, hunters must observe state laws that ban shooting within 500 feet of an occupied dwelling without a landowner’s permission and require shooters to stay at least 150 feet away from paved roads. Some communities have bylaws placing even stricter controls on where hunting can take place.

Hunters are technically not forbidden to hunt on private property, but landowners can post signs to keep them out. In that case, a property owner who finds a hunter on his or her property without permission can have the police remove the trespasser.

Fish and Wildlife officials strongly recommend that hunters get an owner’s permission — preferably in writing — before venturing onto private land other than their own, even if the site is not posted. A bill before the Legislature would make it a requirement.

State officials say the sportsmen, by and large, are careful and obedient of laws and regulations. But training and restrictive laws don’t prevent every instance of illegal or dangerous behavior.

According to a report in the Worcester Telegram, one hunter was arrested in Grafton last month after he held two fellow hunters at gunpoint briefly. The confrontation reportedly flared after the two men witnessed the suspect and another hunter illegally shooting a doe closer than 500 feet to a building.

Also last month, West Springfield police charged a man with violating town ordinances by hunting deer in a town park after he allegedly posted the information on his Facebook page.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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