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Hunting groups clashed at the Capitol Tuesday over a bill allowing mentored hunting for 10-year-olds who have not completed a hunter safety course.

Sen. Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, brought before the Senate Fish and Game Committee Senate Bill 395, creating a $5 apprentice hunting certificate for those 10 and older, allowing them to hunt with a mentor. Deer, turkey and other unlimited licenses would be open under the certificate, with elk restricted to hunters 15 or older and not including archery.

The bill further mandates the Fish and Wildlife Commission to establish a four-day youth deer season open to 10- to 18-year-old hunters.

Current state law allows 11-year-olds to hunt under certain conditions, with adult accompaniment required until 14 years of age. Youth also currently have a two-day deer season held before the general big game season opener, but it is limited to 12- to 15-year-olds.

While all who testified at Tuesday’s hearing praised hunter safety courses, hunting groups were divided on support for SB395.

Proponents, including the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation, Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and some parents of youth hunters, cited strong safety records of mentor hunting in other states and the need to recruit young hunters. Mentor hunting is allowed in 35 other states, and those states have seen increases in hunter retention as a result, proponents said.

“We have to consider the irrefutable safety and recruitment data behind this legislation that shows these apprentices have the best safety record of any hunters in the field,” said John Wemple, regional representative for Safari Club International.

Wemple analogized hunting to driving a car. When 16-year-olds drive unaccompanied, they are statistically some of the most dangerous on the road. Put a parent or guardian next to that same 16-year-old, and he or she becomes one of the safest, he said.

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Flathead Valley resident Warren Illi testified that he wants to take his granddaughter hunting, and that he is a better judge than the state of whether she is mature enough to do so safely.

Opponents countered that putting youth in the field without a hunter safety course defied logic, and that the minimum mentor age of 21 could be too low.

“No one should hunt without hunters’ safety, absolutely not,” said Joe Perry for the Montana Sportsmen Alliance. “Our groups are filled with hunter safety instructors, and we had not one request to support this bill, but we did have overwhelming opposition.”

Perry, who farms near Brady, would not allow anyone who had not completed hunter safety to hunt on his place, he said.

“This gets the cart out in front of the ox -- it should be required to complete a hunter safety course first and not the other way around,” said Jerry Davis for the Montana Bowhunters Association. “Why not have a bill that just lowers the age requirement for taking hunters’ safety?”

Davis and others added that many 21-year-olds lacked the maturity to judge the readiness of a youth hunter.

Blasdel closed on the bill by saying that he had tried to listen to criticism of past youth hunting bills when drafting his legislation and that he had the “utmost respect” for hunter education instructors.

“I realize this hunter apprentice program isn’t for everyone and that not all kids possess the physical and mental attributes at the same age,” he said. “As the father of a 9-year-old … I’m pretty excited this summer to take her out this session and teach her the safe, ethical ways to handle a firearm and pass on the traditions I have.”

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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