By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Idaho wildlife managers are aiming to allow children as young as 10 years old to hunt big game such as bears and mountain lions, lowering the permissible age from 12 to recruit more young hunters.
Under a measure expected to be approved by the state's Republican-led legislature, children ages 10 and 11 could use long-range rifles to take down everything from elk to wolves, provided the youngsters have passed a hunter education course and are accompanied by an adult licensed to hunt in Idaho.
For years, sales of hunting and fishing licenses in Idaho have been flat, hovering at 335,000 in 2013 despite growth in the state's overall population, wildlife managers say. Department of Fish and Game officials hope to boost the number of licensed hunters by promoting hunting as a form of family recreation in an era where children are often preoccupied with more sedentary activities such as texting and electronic gaming.
Fish and Game Deputy Director Sharon Kiefer said the campaign to expand hunting options comes as more wives and mothers are engaged in the sport. She conceded that the proposal may not be welcomed by parents with mixed feelings about a child aged 10 or 11 in the field with a powerful firearm.
"This is not a mandate and we're not in a position of dictating that. It just opens the opportunity for parental discretion and family outings," she said.
Many U.S. states do not set a minimum hunting age, but impose requirements such as hunter education courses that would tend to exclude young children, said Evan Heusinkveld, vice president of government affairs for the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance.
But most Western U.S. states, including Colorado and Montana, where big game hunting is more common, require children to be 12 or older to hunt such animals with an accompanying adult, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Age restrictions for hunting big game are partly due to challenges posed by rugged terrain and the complicated ballistics involved in shooting at long distances. Of the states that place age limits on hunting, only a small number, including Maine and Nebraska, allow 10-year-olds to hunt big game.
Bill Brassard, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said apprentice hunting programs that pair young children or novices with skilled hunters have been successful at preventing shooting accidents.
Tony Latham, retired Idaho conservation officer and former hunter education instructor, said he was wary of allowing 10-year-olds in the field with a rifle that can shoot a bullet for miles. He said even scaled-down versions of hunting rifles known as youth-model guns may be too weighty for small children.
"I'm hesitant from a maturity standpoint and from the size of a 10-year-old in relation to a 7- or 8-pound rifle. I'm not quite seeing the math, to tell you the truth," he said.
Jim Toynbee, a hunter education instructor in Idaho for 40 years, said he favors lowering the minimum age of big-game hunters if it encourages children to embrace outdoor recreation.
"We're on the right track if we're introducing young children to Mother Nature," he said.
The plan would not have been as feasible in previous decades when firearms manufacturers did not produce youth-model guns, Toynbee said. But one possible downside of younger hunters are more poor shots.
"Children get so excited that they may wound animals by taking shots that experienced hunters wouldn't," he said.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and David Gregorio)