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Debate over hunter-orange heats up

Breaking the long-standing stalemate over whether wearing hunter orange should be mandatory in Oregon's woods and fields could rest more with the hunters of the future than those in the present.

Phasing hunter-orange into Oregon's safety ethic through young hunters without forcing a wardrobe change on the state's don't-tell-me-what-to-wear crowd highlights a fresh slate of options for possibly making Oregon the 41st state to require at least some hunter-orange as part of its safety regimen.

Modeled in part after Oregon's 37-year-old mandatory Hunter Education Program, one option would require kids under 18 years old to wear a bright orange upper garment and a hat visible from every angle during every firearms hunt except for turkeys.

The idea is like that of bicycle helmet and life jacket laws for kids — make hunter-orange part of their early routine and they'll be more likely to carry it through their hunting adulthood, thereby reducing incidents in which hunters are wounded or killed in the woods because they were mistaken for game.

"It would protect the youngest segment of our hunting public from these vision-related incidents," says Chris Willard, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's education services manager.

"If a kid was required as a youngster, maybe it would instill this safety ethic to go forward," Willard says. "There's no way to back that up, but certainly you'd hope it would carry forward."

Unveiled late Wednesday, the option has the opportunity to carry the hunter-orange debate forward as the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission hoped when it told the ODFW to present some options for hunter-orange rules beginning in 2011.

The youth-only option has piqued interest among leaders of the Oregon Hunters Association, whose 10,000-plus members have overwhelmingly said they want the wearing of hunter-orange to remain a voluntary decision.

"We have a mandate from our members that we won't even talk about requiring hunter-orange for adults," says OHA President Fred Craig of Grants Pass.

But that was before the agency put forth its youth-only option, which has yet to be vetted among the OHA members and leaders, Craig says.

"I can't say that we'd support that," Craig says. "I can say we'd look at it, and I would not be surprised if we supported it.

"Protecting kids is a little different than requiring all citizens to do something," Craig says.

Sparked by the death of a 15-year-old Salem boy shot Dec. 6 by his uncle, who mistook the camouflaged teen for an elk last fall, the commission in December questioned whether the ODFW should do more than just strongly encourage Oregon's hunters to wear blaze orange.

Though Oregon ranks as one of the safest states to hunt in the country, it is not without blemish.

Half of the 170 weapons-related hunting accidents here in the past 20 years were vision-related, and two-thirds of the 32 fatalities over that time frame were vision-related.

Proponents of voluntary hunter-orange stress that those injuries and fatalities would have been avoided if the shooters had followed current hunting rules — particularly the practice of identifying your target and knowing what's behind it.

That argument has been used to shoot down hunter-orange proposals at the commission and legislative levels for decades.

However, the commission in December asked the ODFW to come up with at least some version of a mandatory hunter-orange rule to debate publicly again, perhaps in a different climate. The agency came up with one no-action option and four others that represent various degrees of regulation.

The options were posted late Wednesday on the ODFW website, in time for a string of statewide public meetings with hunters that begin next week. The commission will be briefed on the options June 4 in Salem. Any decisions would come at its Oct. 1 meeting and any change would not begin until 2011.

"It'll be interesting to see people's reactions," says Willard, who helped draft the options. "I think it's a lot more common-sense than what people were expecting. There won't be anyone out there in orange jump-suits."

The least restrictive options for all hunters require hunter-orange caps or a shirt, coat or vest while hunting big-game animals and all upland birds except turkeys.

Another requires hats and vests or shirts for the above-mentioned hunts. The most rigid proposal calls for hats and upper garments for all hunting except turkeys, but including small game and varmints.

In each case, the orange may be broken up with camouflage patterns but must have a visibility field of 360 degrees.

The intent is to create ways for hunters to see each other better without hurting their success rates, Willard says. That's why big-game species are on the lists because research shows they don't react to colors as much as patterns and movement.

Turkeys, however, react to colors, so turkey hunters are exempt from the options because the rules likely would harm hunting success, Willard says.

Bowhunters likewise are exempt from mandatory rules in these options because only one vision-related accident involving bowhunters has occurred here in the past 20 years, Willard says.

Also, the options do not employ rigid square-inch requirements for hunter orange that are employed by many Midwest states.

"The commission wanted something that's easy to understand, easy to comply with and easy to enforce," Willard says. "That is the approach we took — to keep things simple."

The OHA this spring made a preemptive strike by publicly rejecting any mandatory rules after a survey of its membership revealed that 70 percent were against it.

"They simply don't want it to happen, period," Craig says. "But they had no option for (just) kids when we discussed it.

"If they had come to us with just a youth requirement, it might have been a little different," he says.

From mandatory hunter-education to life-jacket requirements, Oregon has a history of tighter rules for kids than adults while afield or afloat.

Whether some day-glow orange is next remains to be seen.

"I guess we'll see if there's support for a different law for kids than adults," says Duane Dungannon, the OHA's state coordinator in Medford.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.