From South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department
-- South Dakota's hunting heritage has traditionally been passed from one generation to the next. Recognizing that linage, and wanting to help it along, the S.D. Legislature approved a bill this year that allows children as young as 10 years of age to take part in mentored hunting opportunities.
"Having youngsters in the field is nothing new in South Dakota," said Tony Leif, director of the Wildlife Division of the S.D. Game, Fish and Parks Department. "Many South Dakotans learned about hunting and the outdoors well before they were old enough to hunt."
The legislation, which takes effect July 1, allows youth who are 10 to 15 years old to hunt in the company of a mentor.
"At Game, Fish and Parks we accept the challenge of implementing this new law," Leif said. "We also recognize that there's more going on here than just lowering the age limit for hunting."
Bringing young people safely into the hunting experience has long been part of the GFP tradition through its hunter safety course, known as HuntSAFE.
"The HuntSAFE curriculum is designed for students who are 12 years old, so the coursework is too advanced for 10-year-olds," Leif said. "But we're confident that the mentored hunts will be a safe introduction for youngsters before they take the hunting safety course because of the close mentor oversight that the new law requires. We're also confident that once they've experienced mentored hunts, youngsters will be eager to attend a HuntSAFE course and be eligible to get their own hunting license."
The window of opportunity for young hunters from when they're eligible for mentored hunts and when they're eligible to attend a HuntSAFE class is really quite small. Eleven-year-olds are eligible to attend the classes if the student's 12th birthday falls on or between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31. If that's the case, the youngster may be issued a card and is eligible to obtain a license and hunt beginning Sept. 1 of that year.
Plans within the department call for rules to be in place that will allow youngsters to take part in mentored hunts this fall.
"The regulations will adhere to the letter and intent of the law," Leif said. "The spirit of the law, however, rests on the responsibility of parents to make an informed decision about whether or not their youngster is ready to safely handle and operate firearms in the field. Just because the law allows them to hunt doesn't necessarily mean that they should."
In addition to deciding if a child can handle the responsibilities of hunting, parents and guardians should be aware of the rules regarding mentored hunts. The new law says:
-- Youth who take part in mentored hunts must be residents who are at least 10 years old and less than 16 years old.
-- Youth may be mentored by an unarmed parent, guardian or by a competent adult who has the written consent of the parent or guardian.
-- Hunting mentors must maintain "immediate physical control" of mentored youth hunters and cannot carry a firearm while they are mentoring a youth.
-- Mentors must be residents and must have completed a hunter safety course.
-- The number of animals taken may not exceed the limit authorized by a special mentored youth big game license or under the small game license held by the mentor.
-- A mentor may accompany only one youth hunter at a time.
-- A hunting party that includes a mentored youth is limited to no more than six people.
As South Dakota embarks on its first hunting season to allow mentored hunts, the decisions about who will take the field will ultimately be subject to the judgment of parents or guardians. Leif noted that just as some children are ready for school at an earlier age than others, some children may not have the physical or emotional maturity to handle firearms in the field at 10 years of age. At the same time, some 10-year-olds are capable.
"In some cases it may be best to have the child just walk along with the parent during a regular hunt and start the mentoring process in that fashion," Leif said. "There are a number of learning experiences available in South Dakota's outdoors, and all of them can lead to quality family time."