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Tragedy puts spotlight on blaze orange

Matthew Gretzon may accomplish in death what 18 other Oregonians have failed to do over the past two decades to change the way the state's 250,000 hunters see each other in the field.

Gretzon, a 15-year-old Salem boy, was shot dead Dec. 6 by his uncle, who mistook the camouflaged boy for an elk in Yamhill County brush, making him the 19th hunter since 1992 killed in a vision-related accident while not wearing hunter-orange clothing.

His death has sparked the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to consider mandatory hunter-orange regulations for 2011 in Oregon, which remains one of 10 states that don't require hunters to wear the bright color in the field.

Some version of a hunter-orange requirement will be offered as part of the 2011 hunting regulations packet that will be offered for public comment next spring, commission members say.

“I've hunted in several other states where orange is required, and I've never understood why it wasn't required here,” says commissioner Dan Edge, who initiated the discussion surrounding Gretzon's death during a commission meeting Dec. 10 in Salem.

“We should go through the public process to see what the hunters think about it,” Edge says. “But it's a pretty compelling argument: Almost everyone killed out there isn't wearing hunter orange.”

Like motorcyclists who resisted helmet laws here, Oregon's hunters have consistently considered the wearing of the neon-like clothing to be a personal choice despite evidence it would improve safety.

Studies show game animals' eye structures render them unable to distinguish bright orange from other colors in the woods, though hunters can spot it for miles. Movement more than anything gives a hunter's presence away.

Oregon has roughly a half-dozen or fewer firearms-related injuries among hunters annually — with two deaths in the past five years, neither of whom were wearing hunter orange.

Dissenters say these cases have another, more relevant similarity: The shooters failed to identify their target properly before firing.

Two hunters making that fatal mistake in five years shouldn't lead to new wardrobes for a quarter-million Oregonians, say some opponents of mandatory orange clothing.

“No one wants to belittle the tragedy, but at the same time, you need to keep some perspective,” says Duane Dungannon of the Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association, whose membership has resisted hunter-orange mandates in the past.

“All these incidents could be avoided by showing better judgment in the field,” says Dungannon, who personally wears orange while hunting. “You can't legislate common sense.”

That's a comment Chris Willard, Oregon's hunter-education coordinator, hears repeatedly, even though he says most hunters understand that orange clothing won't harm their hunting opportunities and will make them safer.

“They say it's one life, but there are a lot of other lives impacted by that one incident,” Willard says. “The significance of that is very extreme.”

Though no one can tally how many hunters aren't killed because they wore blaze orange, statistics show that it likely does make a difference.

A survey of New York hunters between 1992 and 2001 showed that about 120,000 hunters did not wear blaze orange. Of those, 18 were shot and killed while mistaken for animals.

The state's remaining 580,000 hunters wore blaze orange, though it was not required. None of them were shot and killed in that same period of time.

“No one can say for sure in any specific incident that blaze orange would not cause that accident,” Willard says. “Still ...”

Oregon never really has had a significant discussion about requiring blaze orange.

The Oregon Legislature has seen two bills in the past two decades seeking to require it, but neither traveled anywhere.

But word of Gretzon's death has the commission ready to open that discussion now.

“You hear about (incidents) like this and it just wrenches your heart out,” says commission Chair Marla Rae of Salem.

“It makes sense for the commission to seek the advice and counsel of the hunting public on this, and I am completely open to having that conversation,” Rae says.

The blueprint for that discussion is omnipresent.

Though California, Idaho, Nevada and three other Western states join Oregon in still not requiring hunter orange, all Midwest and Eastern states require at least some hunter orange, except for Vermont, New Hampshire and New York.

The requirements are all over the board.

Florida, for instance, requires all hunters except bowhunters to wear at least 500 square inches of hunter orange above their waists.

Maine requires all hunters to wear at least an orange hat and a vest or coat that covers a “major portion” of the torso.

Some states, such as Missouri, don't allow camouflage patterns of hunter orange to count toward the requirements.

Even that bastion of individualism — Montana — requires all big-game hunters except bowhunters and those accompanying them to wear at least 400 square inches of hunter orange above the waist.

“If Montana has hunter orange, you'd think anybody would accept it,” Edge says.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife will offer some sort of blaze-orange requirement and take comments on it during its May swing of public meetings through Oregon.

That's when the commissioners will learn whether Oregon hunters' rugged individualism will be trumped by a belief that wearing orange in the woods is a cheap price to spare future tragedies like Gretzon's death.

“I may be very surprised by the hunting public in this state,” Edge says. “I've been surprised before.”

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.