HARMONY — Tom Reed has taught hunter safety classes for more than a decade and doesn’t know anyone who’s been involved in a hunting-related accident.

“When it comes to a firearm, there’s really no such thing as an accident,” said Reed, of Harmony, at a recent hunter safety class held at Harmony Elementary School. “Almost every single accident that happens is something that should have been picked up in this class. It’s all things that we teach, and it just comes down to carelessness.”

The class — which ran last week, just before the start of firearms deer hunting season on Nov. 2 — drew more than 40 first-time hunters seeking hunting licenses. The class is offered through the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and has been a requirement since 1986 for adults seeking a first-time license.

In the almost 30 years since it became mandatory, there has been a steady drop in the number of hunting-related accidents each year — defined by the state as a shooting in which at least one person is injured. The case may or may not result in criminal charges.

Incidents have become so rare that state officials and game wardens say there is little else that could be done to make hunting safer.

Since 2010, hunting-related accidents have averaged six a year. That’s in contrast to an average of 65 a year in the 1950s, the worst decade for hunting accidents since the state started keeping records in 1940. What’s even more remarkable is that the state’s statistics before 1960 are only for the fall hunting season, and those afterward reflect the calendar year.

In 2013, the most recent year of available data from the state Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department, four hunting-related incidents were reported.

When compared to the 218,741 hunting licenses that were issued that year, the number of hunting-related incidents involve less 1 percent of all licensed hunters.

STANDARD OF CONDUCT

Despite the increased safety, hunting-related accidents in recent years continue to draw attention and raise questions about hunter safety and training.

In May, a Waterville woman accidentally shot her husband while turkey hunting in China. Janice Jacques, 58, was summoned on a misdemeanor assault charge after the shooting, pleaded guilty to the charge, and was ordered as part of the plea to take a hunter safety course and make a donation to an anti-poaching group.

In October 2012, a Starks man was shot in the torso after getting into a confrontation with three hunters on his property on Halloween.

There also have been more serious hunting-related accidents over the years, including the 1988 fatal shooting of mother Karen Wood, who was hanging laundry in her yard in Hermon — perhaps the most well-known hunting-related death in the state’s history. Wood’s white mittens were mistaken by a hunter for the white tail of a deer.

Wood’s death and the 1990 acquittal of the man who shot her — Paul Rogerson, of Bangor — spurred 1991 legislation that set clearer guidelines for hunters, including specifics of identifying a target and what’s behind it, including an unobstructed view of the target’s head and shoulders.

Wood’s death changed the attitude toward hunting fatalities in Maine, Paul Jacques, a former deputy commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, told the Portland Press Herald in 2012.

Jacques, a state legislator from Waterville when the law was passed, said, “Most of the sportsmen I knew said, ‘Hey, if that’s what we need to do, that’s what we need to do.”

Jacques was speaking after a hunter from Windham, William Briggs, 61, was charged with manslaughter after he fatally shot Peter Kolofsky, 46, in Sebago, on Nov. 5 that year. Briggs, an experienced hunter, fired twice, killing Kolofsky after he said he believed he saw antlers.

Kolofsky was wearing blaze orange, also required by state law after another hunting fatality. Briggs was sentenced in June 2012 to three years in prison, with all but 45 days suspended and 500 hours of community service related to hunting safety.

At his trial, Briggs said he thought he saw the rack of a small deer, but didn’t see the body. He fired twice at the movement without identifying the head or torso of the deer. The Press Herald account at the time said the Maine Warden Service characterized the shooting as “textbook failure to make proper identification of a target.”

More recently, a 49-year-old Wales man, Gerard N. Parent, was fatally shot in November 2012 by another hunter who lived nearby and said he was tracking the same deer.

Christopher Austin, 43, pleaded guilty earlier this year to manslaughter and was sentenced to two years in prison. Austin is banned from hunting or owning firearms.

EDUCATION HARD TO MEASURE

Maine hunting officials say hunting safety courses are a big reason for the decline in incidents.

In the 1960s, when the number of hunting licenses was less than half of what it is today, more than 50 hunting-related accidents were reported on average each year, according to records from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

In the 1990s, that number was down to 11 accidents on average per year, and in the 2000s the number dipped below an average of 10 accidents per year for the first time, according to the department’s records. The number of accidents statewide has not reached double digits since 2008.

“With almost all accidents somewhere along the lines, they violated the law of safety rules. There are very few accidents — it’s practically non-existent — that are caused by a firearms malfunction,” Reed said, the safety teacher in Harmony.

“Education is something that’s hard to measure, but definitely we can see that after 1986, when hunter education became mandatory, hunting incidents started to go down,” said Michael Sawyer, recreational safety and vehicle coordinator for the IFW. “We feel here, and across the country, that that has been a contributing factor. As more hunters go through the education, it’s been very beneficial.”

The hunter safety class is required for all first-time adult license holders and is a one-time requirement, and includes everything from proper gun handling, survival and first aid, map and compass skills to “hunter responsibility,” and landowner relations.

Bobbi Jo Neal, 41, and her daughter, Chelcee Melia, 20, were taking the hunter safety class last Tuesday in Harmony. The women, who are from St. Albans, said they got interested in hunting after Neal married a “huge hunter.”

Melia completed an apprenticeship last year — a program that IFW runs that allows first-time hunters to apply for a pass that allows them to hunt with a licensed hunter on two occasions.

The two said that they had learned a lot about the history of firearms and their mechanics in the class, which also includes tutorials on how to walk with and safely carry a gun.

“I think it’s kind of like a driver’s license,” Melia said. “I don’t think you should have to take this class more than once, per se, but maybe from time to time people need a refresher to make sure they’re safe.”

Sisters Tatumn Parker, 16, Josie Parker, 15, and Elzadie Parker, 12, of Cornville, also were taking the class, so they could go hunting with their father, they said. Tatumn Parker is applying for her first adult hunting license and her sisters volunteered to take the class with her so she wouldn’t have to go by herself.

“It’s reassuring me of what I know, a lot of which I already learned from my dad,” said Tatumn Parker. “He’s been teaching me since I was 10, so it’s kind of like a refresher.”

Children ages 10 to 15 do not need to take the class if they have a youth license and are hunting with a licensed adult. If they do take the class, they don’t have to take it again when applying for an adult license.

“We think if they get a good basic education in the beginning, that will stick with them throughout their career,” Sawyer added. “That’s not to say a person shouldn’t review hunter safety information and remember various parts of the firearms handling and safety rules, but the Legislature hasn’t found it necessary for people to repeat the hunter safety course.”

The exception might be in cases when a violation is reported. Sawyer said that sending hunters back to the safety class is not common, but it has been used in sentencings of hunters who have violated the law, including the China turkey hunting incident involving Janice Jacques.

Reporting hunting accidents is mandatory, and Sawyer said the department believes there is very little underreporting.

HUNTING LAWS CHANGING

But there are also hundreds of less serious hunting violations and illegal hunting activity that goes on every year, according to Lt. Dan Scott of the Maine Warden Service. Enforcing hunting, trapping and wildlife laws is how the warden service spends the majority of its time, according to the agency’s 2013-2014 annual report, which showed that 29 percent of time spent by game wardens goes into enforcing those laws, many of which are changing regularly.

In 2015, the Legislature passed eight hunting laws. The apprentice license that Chelcee Melia, the St. Albans woman in the hunting class, said she got last year, for example, is being expanded under a new law that goes into effect Jan. 1. The law eliminates a minimum age for junior hunting license holders (previously age 10) and expands the number of times a person can go hunting with an apprentice license from two to five. A safety class is not required to get an apprentice license.

There’s also a law to allow the use of firearm silencers while hunting. The bill was sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, who could not be reached for comment late last week. The Legislature passed it in June, and it became law without the governor’s signature, despite opposition from the Maine Warden Service, which said it would encourage hunters to flout restrictions to firing near residences.

Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the law reverses a restriction on firearm silencers that he said there is no need for.

“I would suggest that if you are in the woods and you fire a gun, that you’re going to startle everything around you,” said Dunphy, who added that he is not a hunter. “It seems like you’re going to scare other deer or wildlife around you, so yes, it may give you an advantage if the sound were suppressed.”

“My issue primarily is the limitation of all of our rights,” Dunphy said. “I don’t like laws that restrict us from doing things that in my opinion, aren’t harmful.”

Sawyer would not comment on the firearms silencer law, but said that in general, when it comes to new laws, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife “wants people to abide by the commandments of hunter safety and exercise due diligence, so we’ll just have to see how things play out.”

Capt. Shon Theriault, of the Maine Warden Service, testified against the silencers bill on April 14 before the Joint Standing Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. According to a copy of Theriault’s testimony archived by the Maine Legislature, he reported that on average, the warden service convicts 40 or more people each year for discharging a firearm too close to a dwelling.

“The crimes have been reported because the homeowner or neighbor heard the shot,” Theriault said in his testimony. “This is extremely brazen behavior from individuals who know the firearm makes a loud report. One can surmise that a change in legislation to allow silencers for hunting purposes will only encourage more of this illegal behavior.”

PROSECUTING VIOLATORS

Statistics on the types of hunting-related violations that are reported each year and whether they result in charges were not immediately available from the Warden Service last week. But Scott, a lieutenant with the warden service, said the agency receives “hundreds and hundreds” of reports of illegal hunting activity each year.

“There’s no question (violations) occur regularly and that’s one of our biggest missions in the fall, is to enforce hunting laws,” Scott said.

Those hunting-related violations range from hunting too close to a dwelling or hunting after dark, to not complying with bag limits or trespassing.

He said hunting accidents — the kind in which someone gets hurt — are a small number compared to the number of overall violations, but they’re also the most serious.

“Everyone thinks, ‘It’s not going to happen to me,'” Scott said. “But that’s what everyone says. There are times when a variety of factors come together, when we have good, safe hunters involved in hunting accidents. Is there a way to bring the number of accidents down to zero? Probably not. But I think right now what we’re doing is working well.”

Jocelyn Fitzgerald, of Canaan, another new hunter who is seeking her first license, said last week that knowing a majority of other hunters have taken the required safety class is something that has reassured her.

“It makes you feel safer knowing people have taken the class,” she said. “But like with anything, sometimes you forget.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

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Twitter: @rachel_ohm