Oregon considers hunter orange mandate

Matthew Gretzon may accomplish in death what 18 other Oregonians have failed to do over the past two decades to change the way the state's 250,000 hunters see each other in the field.

Gretzon, a 15-year-old Salem boy, was shot dead Dec. 6 by his uncle, who mistook the camouflaged boy for an elk in Yamhill County brush, making him the 19th hunter since 1992 killed in a vision-related accident while not wearing hunter-orange clothing.

His death has sparked the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to consider mandatory hunter-orange regulations for 2011 in Oregon, which remains one of 10 states that don't require hunters to wear the bright color in the field.

Some version of a hunter-orange requirement will be offered as part of the 2011 hunting regulations packet that will be offered for public comment in the spring, commission members say.

"I've hunted in several other states where orange is required, and I've never understood why it wasn't required here," says commissioner Dan Edge, who initiated the discussion surrounding Gretzon's death during a commission meeting Dec. 10 in Salem.

"We should go through the public process to see what the hunters think about it," Edge says. "But it's a pretty compelling argument: Almost everyone killed out there isn't wearing hunter orange."

Like motorcyclists who resisted helmet laws here, Oregon's hunters have consistently considered the wearing of the neon-like clothing to be a personal choice despite evidence it would improve safety.

Studies show game animals' eye structures render them unable to distinguish bright orange from other colors in the woods, though hunters can spot it for miles. Movement more than anything gives a hunter's presence away.

Oregon has roughly a half-dozen or fewer firearms-related injuries among hunters annually -- with two deaths in the past five years, neither of whom were wearing hunter orange.

Dissenters say these cases have another, more relevant similarity: The shooters failed to identify their target properly before firing.

Two hunters making that fatal mistake in five years shouldn't lead to new wardrobes for a quarter-million Oregonians, say some opponents of mandatory orange clothing.

"No one wants to belittle the tragedy, but at the same time, you need to keep some perspective," says Duane Dungannon of the Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association, whose membership has resisted hunter-orange mandates in the past.

"All these incidents could be avoided by showing better judgment in the field," says Dungannon, who personally wears orange while hunting. "You can't legislate common sense."

That's a comment Chris Willard, Oregon's hunter-education coordinator, hears repeatedly, even though he says most hunters understand that orange clothing won't harm their hunting opportunities and will make them safer.

"They say it's one life, but there are a lot of other lives impacted by that one incident," Willard says. "The significance of that is very extreme."