(Editor's note: This column was published in October 2006. The dates have been updated for the 2008 hunting season.)
As the last bright leaves fade on the forest floor, foliage season ends abruptly. Hikers leave the spare beauty of the late autumn woods behind, grumbling, "Now we can't go in the woods anymore. It's hunting season."
Some people who don't hunt resent or fear sharing the woods with those who do. But how safe is it to be in the woods during the hunting season?
Hunting accidents in New Hampshire are at an all-time low, says Thomas Flynn, hunter education coordinator for the state. The number of incidents has decreased each decade, from an average of 21.4 per year during the 1960s to an average 6.5 per year in the 1990s and 3.3 per year since 2000. Hunter education classes train hunters to identify their targets and know what lies beyond them before pulling the trigger. Only two hunting fatalities have been recorded in New Hampshire in the past 15 years, and hunting accidents rarely involve non-hunters. In fact, nearly 95 percent of all hunting accidents occur between hunting parties, and 40 percent of the time the victim is injured by his own hunting partner. About 35 percent of all incidents are self-inflicted.
Deer are by far the most popular quarry for the more than 60,000 hunters who buy licenses in New Hampshire each year. This year, the muzzleloader deer season runs from November 1 through 11, and the regular firearms deer season runs from November 12 through December 7.
There are a few simple steps that hikers can take to enjoy hiking during deer-hunting season:
1. Wear an article of blaze orange clothing – a vest, hat or bandanna that is easily distinguished from any other color in the woods. 2. You don't want to look like a deer by wearing brown and white. Avoid wearing white socks or gloves that could be mistaken for the flash of a deer's white tail.
3. Keep your dog on a leash. Blaze orange dog vests, leashes and collars are available, or tie an orange bandanna around your dog's neck during hunting season.
4. Pick up a free copy of the New Hampshire Hunting and Fishing Digest at a local sporting goods store, tackle shop, hardware store or deer-checking station to the learn dates of local hunting seasons, particularly "either sex" firearms season for deer in your local wildlife management unit. There are limited days when bucks and does may be taken. The largest number of hunters are in the woods during "either sex" seasons. After a short time, seasons become "bucks only."
5. Stay on designated hiking trails, and avoid bushwhacking.
6. Be courteous and respectful to hunters and non-hunters alike. Respect the rights of others and share the woods.
While I do not hunt, I respect the right of others to hunt for many reasons. Hunting is an essential wildlife management tool and has helped finance the permanent protection of thousands of acres in New Hampshire for wildlife. Since passage of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Program in 1937, New Hampshire has received nearly $29 million for habitat management and the purchase of lands for wildlife, research and hunter education. The money comes from a federal excise tax on the sale of hunting and fishing equipment – essentially a sales tax paid by sportsmen.
NH Fish & Game owns 43,000 acres in 55 wildlife management areas, and most were acquired with federal money, according to Charlie Bridges, the state's habitat coordinator.
When conducted responsibly, hunting reconnects people to the land. A successful hunter must be wise in woods lore, learning the habits and preferred habitats of their quarry. The culling of individual animals from a regional population helps strengthen the overall herd. It takes experience with deer population fluctuations, available food supplies, and winter severity to appreciate the role that hunting plays in maintaining a healthy regional population.
Hikers needn't fear the November woods. Hikers and hunters share a love of the woods and should work to understand shared values rather than accentuate differences. Outdoors people are on the same side when it comes to responsible use and permanent conservation of public land in New Hampshire.
For more information about hunting in New Hampshire, visit: wildlife.state.nh.us/Hunting/hunting.htm.