A hunter in Westminster was accidentally shot in the leg on Nov. 29 — the first day of Maryland's modern firearms season — but such instances are infrequent, according to Natural Resources Police Sgt. Bob Ford. The most common cause of injury among Maryland hunters does not occur because of firearms or bows, but from falling out of tree stands.
"For a hunter to mistakenly shoot someone, mistaking them for game, is very rare," he said.
There were no shooting-related deaths among Maryland hunters in the 2013-14 season, according to data kept by the Department of Natural Resources. One man died of an apparent heart attack in Garrett County, and a Charles County man died after he fell from a tree stand.
"Make sure you have a harness; make sure you're wearing the harness; and make sure the harness is attached to the tree," Ford said.
Eleven people were nonfatally injured in falls from tree stands last year, according to the data.
Though proper harness use seems like common sense, Ford, the safety education coordinator for the Natural Resources Police, said emergency responders sometimes arrive at the scene of an accident and find that the hunter had an unattached harness on or had left the harness in his or her vehicle.
According to the Maryland Guide to Hunting & Trapping, published annually by the DNR, tree stand accidents occur when the hunter is transitioning from a climbing device to the stand or when the stand fails.
To avoid injury, the guide recommends checking permanent tree stands each year before using them, checking equipment before climbing and using a full-body safety harness.
Agencies cooperate to enforce regulations, promote safety
Natural Resources Police officers have all the rights and privileges of the Maryland State Police, according to Ford, and though officers focus on conservation issues, citizens can also find themselves stopped for a traffic violation or other violation of the law.
Cpl. Jonathan Light of the Carroll County Sheriff's Office said local agencies respond to incidents on their lands, particularly if injury is involved, but all hunting accidents must be reported to the DNR.
If a violation is hunting-specific, such as poaching, Natural Resources Police take the case, Light said. In cases of personal injury, agency supervisors collaborate during the investigation.
Chief Luke Brackett of the Baltimore Environmental Police said his agency also works to enforce hunting safety because deer hunting is permitted in their jurisdiction: The watersheds surrounding the Liberty, Loch Raven and Prettyboy reservoirs, which are owned by the city of Baltimore.
The Baltimore Environmental Police is a unit of the Baltimore City Department of Public Works and patrols the areas surrounding the reservoirs to protect the city's water supply assets, according to Brackett. BEP officers have full powers of arrest and work closely with the Maryland State Police, local agencies and the DNR.
According to Brackett, Baltimore opened its lands to deer hunting to control the population.
"The city of Baltimore wants deer hunters to hunt those areas," Brackett said. "The deer population is such a threat to the water supply."
An uncontrolled deer population destroys the forest by eating native species and damaging runoff areas of the watershed, he said.
The city determined that its most cost-effective option was to allow hunting on the lands, including the 9,200 acres contained in the Liberty Watershed, a portion of which lies in Carroll.
Deer is the most popular game in the state and can be hunted throughout the season with restrictions on what kind of implement can be used and what kind of deer can be hunted, according to Ford.
There are special regulations that Baltimore imposes on its lands, including only permitting deer hunting with a bow, Brackett said. Baltimore also prohibits the use of permanent tree stands and baiting deer, he said.
Brackett said when deer-hunting season opens, his officers refocus on making sure hunters are being safe and reminding them not to stray onto private property.
"The city's desire is to be a good neighbor," he said.
Brackett encouraged citizens to call with concerns or complaints.
"It doesn't have to be an emergency to give us a call," he said. "We respond to questions."
In the Liberty watershed, he said officers do not see many problems, in part because the area has been open to hunting for years.
Safety course required in Maryland to prevent injuries
To promote safety among hunters, Ford said Maryland requires all first-time applicants for a hunting license to take the free hunter-education program, offered year-round and available in every county. The requirement became law in 1977, and the only people exempted are those who were licensed before 1977.
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Ford said about 1,100 unpaid volunteers teach the courses, which feature in-depth firearms safety training as well as other hunting safety lessons.
Once hunters have passed the class, Ford said it's like driver's education: They only have to do it once, unless they have instances of law violations or safety issues, then they may be required by a judge to take the course again as a refresher.
Ford said the nation's first hunter safety education program was established in New York in 1949 after veterans returning from World War II often accidentally killed one another in the woods.
Maryland's safety course requirement doesn't exempt combat veterans, Ford said, though some states do. He said though military firearms training is top-notch, it is not taught with hunting in mind.
Maryland's class can be taken in person or online, Ford said. It involves a minimum of 10 hours of classroom instruction, then a field workshop. Even students taking the class online must attend the workshop in which they handle a real gun, he said.
DNR publishes an annual guide to hunting and trapping in the state with detailed dates for the various seasons, which generally run from September through the end of January or beginning of February, according to Ford.
Reach staff writer Heather Cobun at 410-857-7898 or email email@example.com.