Youth Hunting Pilot a Surprising Success in New York

Over 9,800 12 and 13-year old hunters joined the ranks in 2021

Two future hunters receive instruction on crossbow use during National Hunting and Fishing Day. Photo courtesy of Erie County Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs

By Rich Davenport, published April 14, 2022

Last Spring the New York State Legislature took up a measure contained in the 2021/ 2022 budget which lowered the firearms big game hunting minimum age, on a temporary basis as a pilot program, to age 12, under supervision of a parent, legal guardian or qualified mentor – a move long sought by NY’s sporting community. Although the measure was amended to apply solely to deer hunting, and to also have counties pass their own local law to effectively opt-in to this pilot, its passage was welcomed news to the hunting community, as it is well understood the earlier a youth is introduced to hunting, the more likely they will embrace the sport for life.

The youth measure, which sunsets on 12/31/2023, effectively provides a standard minimum hunting age for NY, as youth age 12 and 13 can already hunt small game, wild turkey, waterfowl and fur bearers with a firearm, under supervision, as well as being able to secure a bowhunter license to hunt big game (deer and bear) at age 12, too.

The program created a bit of a scramble for counties to craft and pass their local laws to permit 12 and 13 year old deer hunters to hunt within their county, with a deadline for passage set at end of June to have that county listed in the hunting regulations. Counties could pass their measure anytime before the start of the big game regular season, and have it signed into local law for the measure to take effect, however, listing the county as “kid friendly” for hunting certainly would help parents know where they could take their son or daughter with them.

According to the final tally for 2021, 52 of the 54 eligible counties in NY passed a local law welcoming kids and parents to hunt in their county, with only Rockland and Erie Counties failing to do so. It is hoped these last two counties will join the rest of Upstate NY this season. After all, they didn’t stop 12 and 13 year old youths from hunting, they stopped them from hunting in these two counties, only.

What impact this would have on hunting license sales and participation remained to be seen. Well, the numbers are in, and they are both impressive and encouraging.

According to the NYSDEC, an additional 9,859 youth licenses were sold in 2021 to 12 and 3 year old hunters, indicating NY’s deer hunting families indeed desire this important activity to be a family affair. It is estimated that 85% of those youths participated in the regular big game season, while 62% of these new deer hunters participated in the special youth firearms deer hunt during the Columbus Day weekend, which up until 2021 was reserved for 14 and 15 year old hunters. Although harvest numbers aren’t completed yet, DEC believes many of these 12 and 13 year old deer hunters did successfully harvest a whitetail deer during the 2021 season.

Source: 2022 NYSDEC presentation to NYSCC Spring Meeting

Additionally, a good number of these youth also completed their bowhunter course and participated in the early archery season, and even more impressive is 26% participated in the newly minted southern zone Holiday Hunt, validating the DEC’s belief that deer hunting families would benefit from this season timed well with winter break from school.

While more youth took to the woods with their parents and qualified mentors, concerns over the online hunter’s safety course and possible shortcomings with remote learning carried safety concerns with some, as nothing beats in-person learning. However, those concerns were dispelled with the release of this past season’s Hunter-Related Shooting Incident report, showing the 2021 season as a whole was the safest season in NYS’ history. This, despite also extending the lawful shooting hours to 1/2 hour before sunrise to 1/2 hour after sunset, although the mandatory orange/ pink regulation while hunting big game with a firearm seems to have contributed to this increased safety.

No HRSIs involving the 12 and 13 year old age group were recorded – indeed no youth of any age was involved in such hunting accidents, and the time of day the seven total 2-party shooting incidents occurred were well outside the newly extended periods.

It appears this program has shown to be a winner, and coupled with the covid concerns which drove up hunting and fishing license sales in 2020, both in NY and across the Nation, it would seem we have found the way to solve the recruitment challenges – introduce your son or daughter to the great outdoors early, and have them hunt with you as early as possible. Although hunter education course participation returned to more normal levels in 2021, the trend of license sales on the rise continued, assuring future stewards of our wild treasures are being brought to bear.

Let’s hope the final two counties get “kid friendly” and join the rest of NY, and also let’s hope the legislature listens to the NYSDEC and makes this change permanent. The future is looking bright.