Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Schultz’ Sportsmen’s Stop clerk Jeremy Gross, left, issues a Pennsylvania Game Commission hunting license to Tom McQuaide, of Apollo, at the Kiski Township store on Friday, Nov. 20, 2015
Some might view it as a disaster in the making.
Give three-quarters of a million people — men, women, even children — loaded firearms. Send them into the woods, generally before first light. Have them walk around all day in terrain varying from open, park-like oak forests to tangled, briar-infested patches of misery on the vine.
And then … what? Collect the bodies, right?
“Hunting is safe, and it’s getting safer all the time,” said John McKay, a McDonald native who is executive director of the International Hunter Education Association.
That’s as true in Pennsylvania as anywhere.
When statewide deer season opens Nov. 30, officials anticipate an estimated 750,000 people could seek white-tailed deer. No other state will put that many hunters on the ground in a day on a per-square-mile basis.
Yet the odds of those people returning home safe never have been better.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission has tracked hunting accidents — officially, hunting-related shooting incidents — since 1915. The numbers show hunting once was a dangerous game. In 1960, there were 552 accidents. In 1931, hunting accidents killed 72. Both are state records.
By comparison, there were 29 accidents in 2014 with one fatality, and an all-time low of 27 accidents in 2013, two of them fatal.
That’s reflective of the long-term trend. Hunting accidents — in terms of sheer numbers and per 100,000 participants — have declined nationwide for decades, said Andy Hueser, hunting education administrator for the commission.
“The good old days of hunter safety — we’re living them right now,” Hueser said.
Statistics show football players, skateboarders, cheerleaders, even bowlers and golfers are more likely to be injured than hunters, said Jim Curcuruto, director of industry research and analysis for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Mandatory hunter education is believed to be the principal reason.
In Pennsylvania, hunting accidents dropped by half in the years immediately after 1969, when a hunter education course became mandatory for first-time hunters younger than 16, Hueser said. Accidents dropped again by half shortly after 1982, when classes became required of all new hunters, regardless of age.
Taught by state-certified, volunteer instructors, the classes cover a lot of subjects in six hours. Firearms safety dominates, accounting for 75 percent of class time, said Dale Emerick of North Huntingdon, who has taught classes for 45 years.
“That’s what we dwell on the most. It’s really safety-driven,” Emerick said.
Those lessons stick with hunters throughout their lifetimes, said Bryan Burhans, a deputy executive director with the commission. He offered his experience as proof. Last fall, he was hunting in Centre County when he saw a deer on the horizon.
“I never even raised my rifle and never took the shot because I didn’t know what was beyond my shot and where my bullet might go,” Burhans said.
Emerick hopes all students would act similarly. He wants to see the day when there are no hunting accidents in Pennsylvania.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever get there,” he said. “But that’s the goal.”
This story originally appeared at triblive.com/sports/outdoors.