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MADISON - Children age 9 — and much younger if parents choose — will be able to deer hunt with an adult Saturday for the first time in Wisconsin, under a newly signed state law. 

On Saturday, Gov. Scott Walker signed the measure to allow children younger than 10 to hunt if they are accompanied by an adult mentor who stays within arm's length of their charge. Licenses for these young hunters went on sale Monday. 

State Rep. Joel Kleefisch (R-Oconomowoc) said when he took his 8-year-old daughter hunting, he had to do it in Michigan because she wasn't old enough to legally hunt in Wisconsin at that time. Kleefisch, the chairman of the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources and Sporting Heritage, said parents should be able to decide when their children are ready. 

"It's not government's job to tell parents" that, said Kleefisch, as he proudly showed off hunting photos of his daughters, who are now 11 and 14. 

The state's nine-day gun deer season starts on Saturday and runs until Nov. 26, providing a chance for hunters to shoot hundreds of thousands of deer around Wisconsin to help feed their families. Few states east of the Mississippi River have as rich a hunting tradition as Wisconsin.

In this state, hunters still need to be at least 14 and have passed a hunter's safety class to hunt alone. 

But the mentoring provision in the law allows children or adults who have not yet passed hunter's safety classes to participate in the deer hunt or any of the other seasons open in Wisconsin this fall such as small game, waterfowl, or turkey. 

The mentor must be at least 18 and must stay within arm's reach of his or her student. 

Assembly Bill 455 also now allows both a mentor and child of any age to carry a gun or bow. Previously, children had to be at least 10 to hunt with a mentor, and the adult and child between them could carry only one weapon.

The combination of those two changes makes longtime hunter's safety instructor Ray Anderson uneasy. Stressing he spoke only for himself, Anderson said he testified against the bill because he believes that mentors should leave their own guns at home and focus on the child they're teaching.

"How can your full attention be on the child? It can't," Anderson said of mentors who are looking to shoot themselves. "That's how accidents happen."

For his part, Kleefisch said that many other states also open up mentored hunting programs to young children. Mentored hunting is safer than other kinds because an adult who has been through a hunter's safety class must be beside the new hunter, he said. 

The statistics bear that out, he said. 

"That's one of the reasons mentoring someone is so important," Kleefisch said. 

The National Rifle Association, which supported the legislation, has said that only four states including Wisconsin had a one weapon restriction on mentored hunts. 

Many states allow young children to hunt, though many require a mentor and many also impose a minimum age for deer and other big game animals, making comparisons difficult. The big game distinction matters because it can take substantial strength to draw the kind of bow or shoot the kind of center-fire rifle necessary to legally take a deer or black bear.

Proponents of the legislation point to another reason to make it easier for children to hunt: most conservation programs in Wisconsin and other states rely on a dwindling stream of older hunters and anglers to fund their conservation programs. 

The Senate passed the mentored hunting bill last week, 21-12, with all Republicans voting for the proposal all Democrats voting against it except for North Woods Sen. Janet Bewley of Ashland.

The Assembly, however, was more divided in its vote on the bill the week before.

Four Republicans — Reps. Joan Ballweg of Markesan, Jesse Kremer of Kewaskum, John Spiros of Marshfield and Travis Tranel of Cuba City — joined most Democrats in voting against the bill. But four Democrats also voted for it: Reps. Steve Doyle of Onalaska, Don Vruwink of Milton, and David Bowen and Jonathan Brostoff of Milwaukee.

In a separate hunting matter, Walker over the weekend also signed Assembly Bill 323 allowing for the first time the hunting and trapping of woodchucks in Wisconsin. 

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