Kids under 12 allowed to target Minn. turkeys

When Minnesota's spring wild turkey season opened Wednesday, there may have been some young guns afield.

Really young.

For the first time, kids under age 12 were allowed to apply for turkey licenses. Some 826 applied and 485 received licenses under the turkey license lottery system.

Most are 10- and 11-year-olds, but 166 kids 9 and younger also received licenses, including some 5- and 6-year-olds.

The Minnesota Legislature changed the law last year at the urging of the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Department of Natural Resources. The idea was to remove barriers that discourage youths from taking up hunting.

"We're very concerned about the recruitment of hunters," said the DNR's Bill Penning. "Studies have shown that if you don't get kids involved by the time they are 14, you lose them to other activities."

Said Ryan Bronson, the DNR's youth hunter education coordinator," We know that the younger a person starts hunting, the more avid they are for the rest of their lives and the better likelihood they'll stay hunters."

Bronson noted that youths under 12 already can hunt small game —such as squirrels, rabbits, grouse, pheasants and ducks — if accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. But until now, turkeys had been considered "big game," meaning youths who wanted to hunt them had to be at least 12 and have passed a firearms safety course.

"All we're doing is treating turkeys as small game," Bronson said. "We thought turkey hunting lent itself well for youths," he said. "You're usually stationary, sitting against a tree. It's pretty easy to have a kid sitting right next to you so you can control them."

When is too young?

Some have expressed concern of having kids as young as 5, 6, 7 or 8in the woods with a shotgun. Turkey hunting has had remarkably few shooting accidents since Minnesota's modern hunting seasons began in1978. But there are some inherent dangers: Turkey hunters are camouflaged, move stealthily in the woods and often make turkey sounds.

The law says turkey hunters under 12 must be "accompanied" by a parent or legal guardian. The intent was to have those adults closely monitor and mentor the young hunters.

But DNR officials acknowledge the definition of "accompanied" is fuzzy. Originally, supporters wanted wording requiring adults to be" within arms reach" of their charges. But that wording was changed by legislators. Officials are back at the Legislature this year seeking to clarify the law and require mentors to be within voice and visual contact.

So will there actually be 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds toting shotguns in the woods this spring? Officials don't know. There are a limited number of spring turkey licenses, and they are distributed via a preference system, meaning hunters who fail to get selected for a license this year earn a preference point for next year's drawing.

Bronson said he suspects the parents of some very young applicants didn't intend for them to hunt this spring. They were just hoping their kids would gain preference points to boost their odds of getting licenses in future years.

And then there was the man who applied for his 1-year-old granddaughter to underscore that the law change made it legal for infants to hunt and that the system possibly could be abused by adults seeking hunting permits. The girl was drawn for a license.

The grandfather has said she obviously won't hunt. And DNR officials noted that adults accompanying youths can't hunt unless they, too, have a license.

Also, party hunting for turkeys is illegal, meaning an adult can't fill a child's tag.

"What we're trying to do is allow the parents the opportunity to make the decision of when the child is ready to hunt, rather than us dictate," Penning said.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.