Outdoors

How young is too young for Washington hunters?

SEATTLE -- When Pamela Almli set out for a hike on a popular trail north of Seattle, she may not have been aware that bear hunting season had begun the day before.

And it's unlikely the 54-year-old from Oso, heard the gun go off when a 14-year-old hunter fatally shot her as she bent over to retrieve something from her backpack.

The Aug. 2 accident was a rarity in Washington -- Almli is the first nonhunter killed by a hunter in the state in more than 25 years -- but that doesn't make wildlife officials and the hiking community any less anxious to find ways to make sure it doesn't happen again.

The Skagit County prosecutor filed a first-degree manslaughter charge Friday against Tyler J. Kales, of Concrete, in Skagit County Juvenile Court. If convicted, he could be jailed until the age of 21.

Skagit County Prosecutor Rich Weyrich says the teen failed to follow guidelines in the state's hunting safety manual, including being sure of a target and what lies beyond it.

Authorities note it is legal in Washington for 14-year-olds to hunt without adult supervision. The boy was with his 16-year-old brother when he fired a .270-caliber rifle from about 120 yards away.

Capt. Bill Hebner of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said he and his colleagues would like the state to re-institute an age restriction for people who go into the wilderness with a gun.

Washington previously required supervision for hunters 14 and younger but eliminated the restriction in 1994 when lawmakers revised the state's gun laws, said Democratic Rep. Brian Blake, chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Blake, who believes the change was accidental, is seeking support for a measure to restore the age limit for solo hunters.

Attempts to raise the hunting age in Washington -- last tried in 2005 -- have been met with widespread opposition, said Blake, who did not think organized lobbying by hunting groups and the National Rifle Association was entirely to blame.

"Even family members can disagree about how this should be administered," he said.

Phone calls seeking comment from the NRA and Hunters Helping Kids were not returned.

Any move by the state to tighten restrictions on hunting would buck the national trend.

More than a dozen states put no age limit on hunting and several others have recently lowered their age restrictions. Some, such as Washington, require a safety course for new hunters, but others leave instruction up to parents.

From Arkansas to Washington, anyone who has legally purchased a license can go into the woods to hunt without adult supervision.

But under federal law, people under 18 are not allowed to purchase rifles or shotguns. The minimum age for buying handguns is 21.

Accidental hunting deaths have dropped nationally in recent years, from 91 in 1995 to 42 in 2005, according to the International Hunter Education Association. Many of the deaths involve young hunters and nearly every victim was either the hunter or someone else in the hunting party.

Hebner attributes Washington's safety record -- nine shooting deaths in the past decade -- to the 10-hour course that new hunters born after Jan. 1, 1972, are required to take and to requirements that hunters wear bright orange clothing.

The orange rule may be good advice for hikers as well, although Hebner said Almli and her companion were properly attired for a hike during hunting season by wearing bright colors.

Hikers in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest are more likely to see a bear than a hunter on the trail, said Gary Paull, wilderness and trail coordinator. That's because this year's heavy mountain snowpack has bears foraging for food at lower elevations.

Hiking groups believe it was just a matter of time before a close call became a fatal accident.

Andrew Engelson, editor of Washington Trails magazine, which is published by the Washington Trails Association, wonders if it's appropriate for hunters and hikers to share the same space. A few close calls with guns have made some hikers reluctant to venture out in late summer and early fall.

About a year before Almli was shot, a couple hiking on Mount Higgins, Frank and Val Herbert, heard gunshots while they were on their way down the trail, Engelson said.

Frank Herbert yelled to alert the shooter that hikers were approaching. The shooter refused to stop and told the Herberts to find another way down the mountain.

"I've hiked for years on thousands of miles of trails and this was the first time I've ever been truly afraid," Frank Hebert told Engelson.

The Herberts reported the incident to Forest Service employees, who said there was nothing they could do. Engelson said a follow-up call from the trails association led the Forest Service to improve training of seasonal employees and seek more law enforcement patrols in the area.

Most hunters know to be 100 percent sure of their target before taking a shot, Hebner said.

"Once you make the decision to squeeze the trigger and discharge a round, you can't ever take that back," he said.

The 14-year-old who shot Almli was an experienced hunter who had taken a hunting class when he was 9, authorities said. Weyrich said the boy failed to follow guidelines in the state's hunting safety manual, especially being sure of a target and what lies beyond it.

"All I can say is that it never should have happened," Almli's husband, William, told the Skagit Valley Herald.

They have a son and three grandchildren.

"How do you confuse a woman with a bear?" he asked.

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