CHARLESTON, W.Va. – A significant drop in the number of hunters in West Virginia has left a hole in the state's budget, and one lawmaker thinks he has a solution: Allow children to receive hunter training in school.
Seventh- through ninth-graders could opt for instruction in topics ranging from survival skills to gun safety, but the weapons would have dummy ammunition or be disabled. Sen. Billy Wayne Bailey, who introduced the bill this month, doesn't envision students firing real guns during class time.
"It's a way to take this kind of education in the classroom and make it more convenient for young people," said Bailey, a Wyoming County Democrat.
West Virginia, where roughly 320,000 people participated in the recent two-week gun season for bucks, may be the only state contemplating such a bill, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Although it still ranks in the top six nationally for sales of hunting permits to nonresidents, West Virginia sold 154,763 permits to residents in 2006, a 17 percent decrease from 1997, according to the state Division of Natural Resources.
The decline is being felt at the state Capitol. This month, Gov. Joe Manchin proposed spending $1.8 million on DNR's law enforcement efforts to make up for revenue lost because of the decline of hunting and fishing permits.
"West Virginia is probably in better shape than other states, but this is really rather disconcerting from our perspective," said Paul Johansen, DNR assistant chief of wildlife management.
Nationally, the number of hunters 16 and older was about 12.5 million in 1996, a 10 percent decline from 2006, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Part of West Virginia's problem is it doesn't require senior citizens to buy a hunting license. The state has one of the oldest populations per capita in the nation, and the ranks of hunters aren't being replenished by young people.
To secure a license, residents have to complete at least 10 hours of training and be at least 10 years old when they take the test, which includes demonstrating proper gun safety. Would-be hunters have to show they can load and unload a gun, carry it across obstacles, and keep the muzzle pointed in the right direction.