FRANKFORT, Ky. – Like so many other rural kids, 10-year-old Sierra Thomas is an avid hunter.
The southeastern Kentucky girl has been pursuing squirrels, turkeys and deer for years, and last month she bagged a 600-pound elk on an Appalachian mountaintop. She was thrilled. Her father, Donald Thomas, ecstatic.
In Kentucky, like other rural southern states, children have traditionally started hunting early — some as soon as they're old enough to shoulder a gun and walk through the woods with Dad.
"We have a motto," said Thomas, a Laurel County taxidermist who always accompanies his daughter. "Take a child hunting, and you won't be hunting your child."
The Kentucky Wildlife Commission has taken steps to make it easier for children to hunt, even removing the requirement for the state's youngest hunters to purchase licenses.
The moves have triggered debate in some circles about what is the appropriate age for children to hunt with firearms.
"It differs from child to child," said Ron Toler, a member of the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission. "Some kids at 7 years old are fully capable of going out and hunting. Others, at 16, I would have concerns about."
The state Fish and Wildlife Commission approved the regulation in December that sets the minimum age for children enrolling in hunter education training and test at 9. The regulation also increases the age at which children have to pass the test from 10 to 12, giving kids two more years of hunting before they face mandatory safety training.
The regulation also drops a requirement for children under 12 to purchase a "junior" hunting license. Previously, children were required to have such a license, regardless of age.
The initiatives must be approved by a legislative committee before they take effect, probably in July.
Other states have taken similar steps to promote youth hunting. Some, like Ohio, have created apprentice hunting licenses for children, which allows them to be mentored by veteran hunters even before they complete the hunter education course.
Sales of youth hunting licenses in Ohio rose 45 percent last year to 60,628, according to the Ohio Division of Wildlife. Of those, 7,666 were apprentice youth hunting licenses.
Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, said there is no uniform standard for when kids are allowed to hunt with a firearm.
In Kentucky, children any age can hunt as long as they have an adult within arms' reach. Rhode Island requires children to be at least 15 to hunt with a firearm. And in New York state, youths must be at least 16 to hunt deer with firearms and 12 to hunt small game animals with firearms.
Markarian said the Humane Society hasn't taken a position on when children should be permitted to hunt. He said the group, however, frowns on government wildlife agencies sponsoring programs in an attempt to recruit children into hunting.
"Frankly, we think if a parent is going to take a child hunting, that's the family's personal decision, but the state really shouldn't have an interest in getting involved in a controversial issue," Markarian said. "For a state agency to spend its resources trying to recruit children into hunting, we believe it reflects misplaced priorities. There are so many other things the agencies could be focusing on."
Thomas said he feels it is important that parents pass along the hunting heritage to their children at the appropriate age. Although he says his daughter, a fifth-grade honor student, is mature and responsible, others her age may not be.
"It's hard to put an age on that," he said.
The National Wild Turkey Federation, the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance and the National Shooting Sports Foundation have teamed for an initiative called Families Afield that is lobbying states to allow parents to decide when their children reach the appropriate age.
"Who knows better when that kid is actually ready to go, the parent or the government?" asked Rob Keck, head of the National Wild Turkey Federation. "For us to come up with an arbitrary number really isn't fair. I don't think we ought to put any kind of a bottom on it. The parent needs to make that choice."
Through the initiative, the groups are lobbying officials in 20 states that have minimum age limits on hunting big game animals like turkey and deer. Of those, 16 states require hunters to be at least 12 years old before they can hunt big game. And one, New York state, requires youth hunters to be at least 16 before they can hunt deer with a firearm.
The number of kids who hunt declined by 26 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. Keck said easing restrictions may help curb the decline.
"We don't want to turn kids loose unsupervised with firearms," Keck said. "Some people have gotten the wrong idea. We're talking about mentored youth who will get a chance to experience the thrill of the hunt."