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One of the more popular traditions around this time of year is the “resolution,” where well-meaning folks promise themselves to do something that will uplift, improve or enhance their lives. Most of these resolutions (“I'm going to eat less,” “I'm going to exercise more,” “I'm going to be more active in the community”) tend to wither and fail within days, if not weeks, and by Ground Hog Day we're all back to our fat, lazy, too-busy selves.
Some resolutions are doomed from the start (make one and you'll find out!), but if there's one resolution you can make - and keep - it's this: Vow to learn more. If there's anything wrong with outdoorsmen it's that they know only what they've seen or experienced, but there's a big world out there, lots of knowledge available and constant new studies going on that are interesting, informative and can change how you think about the things you're going to be voting on in the future.
For example, hunters are forever being told that the sport is dangerous, unsafe and risky. It's one of the reasons we don't have Sunday hunting in Maine - folks think they can't go out and have a Sunday picnic because there's lead flying all around in the woods and it's not safe for the wife and kids to enjoy a hotdog while sitting on a blanket in a frosty cedar swamp in November (a myth if I ever heard one!).
Most folks talk endlessly about stuff they heard about or just begin to theorize as topics come up, but if you happen to be a subscriber to Maine Fish and Wildlife, the official magazine of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (and you should be - that resolution you made, remember?), you'd be able to tell coffee table theorists that hunting is actually safer than baseball, basketball, soccer or even fishing! A story in the Fall 2005 issue of the magazine by Roland Martin, MDIFW commissioner, notes that in 2001 there were an estimated 19.2 million active hunters in the U. S., and the total number of related injuries reported was 740. Of the 44.4 million anglers who fished that year, over 79,000 injuries were reported - in other words, you're 100 times more likely to be injured while fishing than while hunting! Pretty good information to bring up at the next “Sunday hunting is dangerous” coffee klatch, wouldn't you say?
“In Maine,” Martin's report said, “hunting incidents have been reduced from a high of 70 in 1952,which included 19 fatalities, to a low of 3 incidents with no fatalities in 1998.” In 2003, 200,000 hunters had 5 accidents and no fatalities. Mandatory hunter orange clothing and firearms safety education classes (required for every hunter, with over 200,000 graduates in the state) have had much to do with bringing Maine's hunter safety record down to relatively miniscule levels.
On the other hand, snowmobilers, mountain bikers and ATV operators suffer many more injuries in Maine than do hunters. In fact, last year there were 311 ATV accidents and 10 fatalities, including one juvenile. And people still think hunting is unsafe?
Also in the Maine Fish and Wildlife magazine is a disturbing report on chronic wasting disease (CWD), an always-fatal disease that is affecting deer, elk, moose and various deer species that are commonly kept in pens (fallow deer, red deer, etc.). CWD is a fatal brain disease that progressively destroys the brain. Deer herds have been affected in Canada and the West, but cases have been found in Illinois, Wisconsin, West Virginia and New York, and, as the MDIFW report says, it's “only three watersheds away from Maine.”
The disease seems to be most common among captive deer, but when wild deer mingle with or contact fenced-in herds, the disease spreads. CWD, once contracted, is always fatal and the deer die a miserable death, but so far there has been no evidence that the disease can be transmitted to other animals or humans. If you start seeing deer that are extremely thin, have a rough coat, seem uncoordinated or disoriented, drool or show signs of extreme thirst, report it to the local game warden.
Another weighty topic in recent years has been the use of crossbows for hunting. Crossbows are now legal for limited use in Maine (bears over bait and for deer during firearms seasons), but there's a long way to go because there's so much misinformation about them. Traditional bowhunters (an oxymoron if ever there was one because most modern archers use compound bows that are as technically advanced and mechanical as any crossbow) complain that crossbows are too dangerous, too accurate and too easy to use and therefore shouldn't be allowed during “archery” seasons. In truth, crossbows are clumsy, unwieldy and heavy, suited only for sitting in one place and shooting at deer in open cover at 25 yards or less, just like regular bows! Crossbows are accurate within their capabilities, but that is a plus, not a minus. Any bowhunter wants his arrow to strike where he aims it, not a foot high or low, injuring or missing the intended target.
Perhaps the biggest complaint about crossbows is that they can be cocked and loaded at dawn and may be carried all day, ready to shoot. That is true, but the actual time that a deer is seen, tracked and shot comes down to mere seconds, and modern compound bows show little difference. For example, a world-class buck was shot in Ohio this season and the hunter (a compound bow user) begins his story like this: “I drew back my bow and waited . . .”). In other words, he saw the deer, “cocked and loaded” his compound bow, and simply waited for the buck to move into a shooting lane. How is that any different than a crossbow user seeing a deer, raising his bow and waiting for a good shot?
These are just a few of the things you can ponder as you devour information, exercise your brain and forge ahead with your resolution to learn more about wildlife, nature and the outdoors this year. There's plenty more, too. For example, are bass really bad? Is hunting with bait or hounds really detrimental to the bear population? Is hunting really as scary and unsafe as non-hunters seem to think? Resolve to find out, and when it comes time to vote you'll know what you're talking about!
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