Hunting fatalities drop through decades in Minn., but dangers remain
By Mike Nowatzki/ The Forum
The number of fatal hunting accidents in Minnesota has dropped dramatically over the past 50 years, averaging fewer than three per year since 1990, and waterfowl hunting fatalities like the one that claimed the life of a 23-year-old Nevis man Oct. 5 are less common than big-game hunting fatalities, statistics show.
But when accidents occur in a boat, the results are often fatal because of waterfowl hunters’ proximity to one another, said Mike Hammer, education program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
“If they do have an accident, they’re in close range, and that’s when we see fatalities happen,” he said.
The Hubbard County Sheriff’s Office has said Adam E. Poole and his hunting partner were duck hunting Oct. 5 on a channel connecting two lakes when both stood up in the boat to shoot at a duck. The hunting partner lost his balance and his shotgun discharged, striking Poole in the head, the sheriff’s office reported. Poole died at the scene.
It was Minnesota’s first fatality of the 2013 hunting season, Hammer said.
The last duck hunting fatality in Minnesota occurred in Douglas County in October 2006, according to DNR records. The 27-year-old victim was hunting from a boat with two other hunters. They had just started shooting at some ducks when the victim leaned up against the hunter in the middle of the boat, who turned and noticed the victim was injured in the face. The victim died seven days later.
There were two fatal accidents in October 2002 involving duck or geese hunting, one in Beltrami County and one in Otter Tail County, but neither happened aboard a boat.
Minnesota recorded 10 hunting fatalities from 2008 to 2012. Seven happened while deer hunting, the other three while goose, pheasant or turkey hunting, DNR records show. At least half of the fatalities were attributed to self-inflicted wounds from the accidental discharge of the hunter’s firearm.
Hammer said big-game hunting carries a higher risk of fatal accidents because of the higher-caliber firearms involved, whereas most waterfowl hunting accidents are injuries when someone gets struck with stray shotgun pellets.
“It’s typically not a close-range accident,” he said.
Minnesota has seen hunting fatalities and injury incidents decline significantly in the past two decades.
The DNR recorded 57 hunting fatalities from 1990 to 2012, an average of about 2.5 per year. There were a total of 634 hunting injury or fatality incidents during that time, for an average of nearly 28 per year, according to DNR stats.
Numbers in both categories dropped sharply from the previous 30 years, which saw averages of about eight fatalities per year and 55 total incidents per year – and that doesn’t include several years of missing data, Hammer said. The downward trend occurred despite a sizable increase in the number of hunting licenses sold, from around 300,000 in 1968 to more than 850,000 in 2011, according to DNR figures.
Current statistics are for seasonal hunting years; for example, the 2012 stats encompass the period from July 2012 to March 2013.
Hammer said the biggest reason for the drop in fatalities and overall incidents is probably because most hunters today have completed a firearms safety and hunter education course. The hunter safety program was put into state law in 1955, and in the early 1990s the state began requiring that anyone born after Dec. 31, 1979, complete the course before they can purchase a firearms hunting license, he said.
For waterfowl hunters, Hammer said boats can be an unstable platform for shooting, with stability varying depending on where the boat is sitting, whether it is in cattails or wild rice.
“Zones of fire are very important to consider, and the best situation for people sitting in the boat is back to back and not standing up,” he said. “You stand up, you raise the center of gravity and just make that watercraft a lot more unstable.”
The DNR also has seen an increase in instances in which dogs caused accidental firearm discharges in close, confined hunting spaces, with five such cases being reported in as many years, Hammer said.
North Dakota’s Game and Fish Department recorded a total of 105 hunting accidents, including five fatalities, from 2002 to 2011, said Bob Timian, the state’s chief game warden. Accident numbers weren’t compiled yet for the 2012-13 season, during which the state sold an estimated 150,000 firearms hunting licenses, Timian said.
“On any given year it can spike, but if you look at the number of hunters in the field versus the number of accidents, it’s a pretty low incident rate,” he said.
About 70 percent of North Dakota’s hunting accidents in the past decade involved shotguns, with more than half of those accidents occurring during pheasant hunting season, Timian said.
He agreed with Hammer that mandatory hunter safety courses have improved safety rates. He also noted North Dakota’s landscape is generally more open than Minnesota’s.
“There are a number of factors that go into why accident rates go up and down,” he said.
Minnesota hunting accidents
2011: 18 accidents, 4 fatal
2010: 26 accidents, 2 fatal
2009: 25 accidents, 1 fatal
2008: 25 accidents, 2 fatal
2007: 25 accidents, 2 fatal
2006: 23 accidents, 4 fatal
2005: 24 accidents, 3 fatal
2004: 16 accidents
2003: 31 accidents, 1 fatal
2002: 20 accidents, 2 fatal
Source: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources