Maryland hunters are killing themselves. Two have died so far in just the first week of the season. Before deer hunting ends in January, others will shatter their backs, smash their skulls or snap their arms and legs in falls from tree stands.
Early numbers and anecdotal evidence indicate that deer hunting is up this year, most likely driven by a bad economy that has families seeking cheap meat for the freezer. That probably means more hunters with rusty skills and, perhaps, even rustier equipment.
Accident prevention is simple. For less than $150, deer hunters can buy a life insurance policy — a full body safety vest. For under $20, they can rig an accompanying rope belaying system to stop a fall. Yet more than half of all hunters take a pass.
The General Assembly, which has insisted that we strap a seat belt around our middles when we get into our cars, place a helmet on our heads before roaring off on a motorcycle and wrap children in a life jacket before motoring away from shore have not seen fit to insist that hunters wear safety equipment when they're perched in a tree.
With more than 100,000 hunters in the state, that seems pretty short sighted.
Paul Peditto, director of DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Service, agrees.
"This is a tragedy," says Peditto, whose father fractured a hip more than a decade ago after falling from a stand as he unclipped to climb down the ladder. "It's totally frustrating that hunters who have embraced all the commandments of hunter safety are failing the 11th commandment."
Officials around the country are beginning to act.
Last year, Mississippi became the first state to require a safety harness when hunting in a wildlife management area. Alabama now requires their use in 242,000 acres of national forest land. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires safety harnesses on certain properties.
Falls are the leading cause of hunter injuries across the country. Maryland is no exception.
Natural Resources Police investigated a dozen hunting accidents during fiscal 2010 and 14 hunting accidents during fiscal 2009. Falls from tree stands made up half the accidents during both years.
Ricky Morris, a retired NRP officer who supervises hunter safety courses in Maryland, says those numbers are low because unlike shooting accidents, emergency-care facilities are not required to report tree-stand falls to the state and many hospitals don't have a separate category for them.
"Then there's the embarrassment factor," he says. "Guys don't want to talk to other guys about how they got hurt. We don't know how many tree stand accidents there are and we probably don't want to know."
A Consumer Product Safety Commission study indicates that between 2005 and 2007, emergency rooms nationwide treated nearly 19,000 tree stand injuries. During that same three-year period, 41 hunters were killed in falls.
Until six years ago, Tracy Groves was one of the untethered ones.
"Why? I don't know why," says Groves, a pro staff member for Mossy Oak and host of "Real Deal" on the Sportsman Channel. "Young and stupid, I guess."
But the father of two from Eldersburg says "it just hit me one day" and he now preaches the gospel of wearing a vest or harness.
"Guy are so busy and then the season rolls in and they rush around to get their gear together. They aren't properly prepared," he says. "Well, a guy who doesn't have a vest on doesn't belong in a tree."
Morris says hunters should inspect their gear and practice using it, especially at night, before the season begins.
And Peditto says hunters should know how to tie a Prussic knot—essentially a belaying system—to be clipped in "from the ground to the stand and back again. If you can tie a shoe, you can tie a Prussic."
Jim Barta, vice president of Hunter Safety Systems, a major manufacturer of vests, says hunters have been bombarded with information and assistance from the industry. The Treestand Manufacturers Association, which certifies hunting platforms, has been including harnesses with each stand sold since 2004. It has paid for magazine ads and TV spots featuring hunters and NASCAR driver Kurt Busch.
"All harnesses will save your life, but they're not going to help you if it's in your truck or your pickup truck," Barta says. "The technology has improved, the vests are comfortable and don't take any time to put on and buckle up. Is your life not worth 10 to 15 seconds? And if you don't value your life, don't you owe it to your wife and family?"
The industry's frustration was evident in a letter last year to the Consumer Product Safety Division from John Woller Sr. of the Treestand Manufacturers Association: "Until wearing of a harness becomes law [hunters] will continue to voluntarily place themselves at risk even when warned through labels, instructions and the DVDs which come with the product, as well as having proven fall arrest equipment furnished to them."
Peditto hopes the General Assembly will act next session.
"We want a zero in the tree-stand accident column and we will get there," says Peditto. "Our education efforts have failed so far. If we have to do it through mandatory regulation, we will."