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Few conservation wardens get far into their careers before being called to investigate the tragic loss of a person's life, often due to a careless act while hunting, snowmobiling, boating, or riding an all-terrain vehicle (ATV).
Formal accident reporting was not required until 1951. However, newspaper articles from the early 1900s show the number of hunters killed and injured was much higher in proportion to the number of deer harvested. An account from the Nov. 4, 1908 issue of the Iron River Pioneer reported: "There were no serious accidents during the past deer season although there were 44 persons killed and 57 injured. Most of these reported were self-inflicted owing to carelessness in handling firearms. That number is still too high, but with an estimated 20,000 hunters in the woods and a definite lack of snow, the record was not too bad."
Great strides in hunter education and law enforcement have significantly reduced hunting accidents. In 1998, two people died and 16 were injured in firearms accidents during a nine-day gun-deer season in which 670,000 hunters harvested 324,514 deer.
Snowmobile accidents were rare until the advent of modern, fast snowmobiles in the early 1970s. Death rates were high then and continue to be high in proportion to the actual number of machines registered. In the last ten years, Wisconsin snowmobile deaths have ranged from 15 in 1988-89 to 34 in 1996-97.
Wisconsin's first boating safety laws were introduced in 1919 and were intended for commercial vessels. Reporting all boating accidents did not become law until 1960. Boating fatalities, injuries and accidents have dropped even as the number of boats registered in the state has swelled to 570,000, with another 500,000-plus nonregistered boats including canoes and kayaks. In 1970, shortly before the safety education course started, there were 61.8 accidents per 100,000 registered boats. In 1998, there were 28 accidents per 100,000 registered boats.
The roaring popularity of ATVs too often puts these machines in the hands of operators who are too young and inexperienced to prevent accidents. In 1997, for instance, one-third of the 170 reported accidents involved operators 15 years of age or younger.
Although most accidents result in minor personal injury, a small number take a tragic turn, disabling victims or taking the lives of those that were enjoying themselves just seconds before. Fatal accidents receive a lot of publicity, not necessarily for the circumstances of the accident as for the heart-wrenching outcomes: Wardens follow-up when a 5-year-old after when his father's snowmobile plunges through thin ice; a father of two children is mistaken for a deer and shot in the pre-dawn darkness by a teenage hunter; an expectant mother in a tree stand loses her baby when she is struck by a stray bullet from a careless hunter; a young ATV operator is struck and killed by a car on the highway a short distance from his home; and when three walleye fisherman in a 12-foot boat perish in 36-degree water after their boat capsizes on a cold March day.
A conservation warden's primary obligation is to protect outdoor recreationists from the negligent acts of others. Most "accidents" result from carelessness that could have been prevented with proper training, adequate supervision, or compliance with safety laws. Those who misuse firearms, recreational vehicles and vessels can be held accountable for their actions and charged in criminal court for negligent use. Sentences can involve fines, jail sentences, and license revocations.
Wardens also examine cases to determine if the accident could have been prevented through additional safety education, more specific safety laws, or better product design. For example, snowmobile safety classes now stress the perils of alcohol use while snowmobiling. Instructors teach young operators how to drive defensively when encountering intoxicated operators. A second example: New legislation enacted last year requires hunters to wear caps that are at least 50 percent blaze orange color during the deer gun season. Hunter education instructors strongly advise students to wear hunter orange while game bird hunting as well. And a third example: One rifle manufacturer installed cross-bolt safety devices on their lever-action models when it was shown the hammer itself did not provide an adequate safety.
Although no two accidents are identical, many are similar and provide wardens with ideas for investigating other mishaps thoroughly and objectively. Wardens rely on a variety of resources in accident investigations. Local police and sheriff departments serve as co-investigators in most cases. Medical examiners, EMTs, nurses, physicians and crime laboratory specialists help piece together the puzzle. Witnesses' accounts are analyzed to provide perspectives. District attorneys receive copies of all fatal accident reports to decide on potential court action.
No one is immune from becoming involved in an accident. Humans will err, but we can learn from our mistakes and those of others.