Saratoga County is taking the first steps toward allowing youths as young as 12 years old to hunt with firearms during the autumn big-game season.
Legislation included in the new state budget lowers the New York firearms hunting age from 14 to 12, as long as the youth is hunting with an experienced adult hunter. While the move is popular among sporting groups and backed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the legislation leaves it up to each county to decide whether to opt into the program.
Saratoga County supervisors briefly but favorably discussed the matter on Wednesday. Next week the board is expected to set a public hearing on the matter for May 18, just ahead of the Board of Supervisors’ May meeting, where action could be taken.
State DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said the state is hoping upstate counties that are eligible for the change make a decision by early June. The state must prepare its hunting and trapping regulations guide materials ahead of the fall hunting season. Until now, the state’s minimum age for hunting big game like deer and bear with a firearms has been 14, the oldest age in the country. In most states that set a minimum age it is 12.
The measure is also seen as a way of encouraging young people to take up the sport, which has seen a decline in numbers in recent decades, though there was an increase last fall, possibly due to pandemic-related interest in spending time outdoors. It is enacted for upstate counties on a pilot basis through 2023.
“Deer hunting is a valued tradition for many upstate families, providing quality food to New Yorkers and reducing the negative impact of overabundant deer populations on agriculture, forests and communities,” Seggos wrote in an April 9 letter to county leaders across the state. “Expanding youth hunting opportunities to assist with deer management and cultivating a new generation of hunters is a top priority for DEC.”
Under previous law, hunters age 12 and 13 with adult supervision could hunt big game with a bow or small game with a gun. The change will allow them to use a gun or crossbow to hunt big game, as long as they are with an experienced adult hunter. They would also have to complete a hunting education course.
“These are excellent opportunities to introduce youth to nature, conservation and responsible wildlife management,” Jason Kemper, chairman of the state Conservation Fund Advisory Board and the Saratoga County planning director, testified at a state budget hearing in January. “Hunting, especially at a young age, imprints in youth the mindset that game management and environmental stewardship go hand-in-hand. Statistics have proven that youth hunters, under the supervision of an adult, are the safest hunters afield.”
While most upstate counties are expected to opt-in to the lower hunting age, Saratoga appears to be among the first to start action.
In Fulton County, which also has a strong rural hunting culture, the Board of Supevisors Economic Development and Environment Committee will discuss the measure on April 28, said county Administrator Officer Jon R. Stead. “I would have the expectation that it will be adopted, but they haven’t discussed it yet,” he said.
The Montgomery County Legislature has not yet discussed the topic. In Schoharie County, another county with large rural areas and a strong hunting culture, the Board of Supervisors isn’t expected to take up the topic until May, said board clerk Sheryl Largeteau.
Last week, the DEC released statistics for the 2020 hunting season that showed a continued down-trend in hunting accidents, even though 600,000 New Yorkers hunted.
DEC documented 22 hunting-related incidents in 2020, including three fatalities. While up from the record-low 12 incidents documented in 2019, the number of incidents in the 2020 season continued a downward trend over the past 20 years, the agency said. Nine of the 22 incidents were two-party firearm incidents, and 13 were self-inflicted. The three fatalities were all self-inflicted and involved experienced hunters. All of the incidents could have been prevented if hunting safety rules had been followed, DEC said.