Patt Dorsey says split-second mental lapses often are to blame for incidents that end in serious injury or death for hunters.
Dorsey is the former hunting education administrator for the Division of Wildlife. She said examples of mental mistakes that can prove deadly include getting distracted and pointing a muzzle where it shouldn't be aimed, hoping to save time by not unloading a gun before getting into a vehicle and not fully identifying the target before pulling the trigger.
"It just takes a second," she said.
Until Sept. 20, Routt County had not seen a hunting related death since 1980. In 50 years of collected data by the DOW, the county had a total of 32 hunting accidents, six of which were fatal.
And as rare as hunting deaths are in Routt County, deaths from one hunter mistakenly identifying another hunter for an animal are even more rare. "That type of accident really doesn't happen in Colorado," Dorsey said.
Since 1945, out of Colorado's 900 reported accidents, 53 have been from mistaking hunters for game. Just 21 mistaken identity shootings have occurred since 1970, and eight of those were fatal. In the 1990s, four accidents occurred, but no one died.
Routt County saw its first fatal hunting-related accident in 23 years Sept. 20 when a man in a Wisconsin hunting party allegedly mistook his friend for an elk and shot him in the back with a muzzleloader.
On Tuesday, Routt County Coroner Dwight Murphy ruled the shooting a homicide.
The ruling does not come with any criminal charges but does indicate the coroner's office believes the death of Gerald Holverson was more than an accident. Homicide could cover anything from Murder 1 to criminal negligence or recklessly causing the death of another.
The last death in Routt County occurred in November of 1980 when a hunter saw a deer and took the safety off his gun but did not shoot, Dorsey said. Shortly after, he sat down on a rock with the rifle pointed toward him. The rifle discharged, grazing his chest and hitting his throat.
Dorsey said the 1980 death was a classic example of a mental lapse that resulted in an accident.
"You follow really one simple rule," she said. "I tell people always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction."
When comparing the number of hunting accidents to the number of actual participants, Dorsey said it was more likely for someone to go to the hospital for a turned ankle from playing ping-pong than for a hunting accident.
But when hunting accidents do occur, they often can be horrific and fatal.
"We don't bring attention to traffic accidents on I-25, but you hear about a plane crash," she said. "For the very reason it is made big news is it just doesn't happen very often."
Compared to other states, Dorsey said Colorado ranks as one of the best in hunter safety.
From 1990 to 1999, the state averaged 1.3 deaths a year and 11.1 nonfatal accidents a year.
Those numbers have been dropping steadily since 1960, when the state saw nine deaths a year and 24.2 accidents.
Laws requiring hunter education courses, blaze-orange clothing during hunting and making it illegal to have a loaded firearm in a vehicle are factors in the decline, Dorsey said.
Susan Werner, the DOW's area wildlife manager, said Routt County has averaged about one accident a year.
By far, Werner said, accidents are most common around vehicles.
"We constantly remind people when we make checks in the field to make sure every gun is unloaded when you're near a vehicle," Werner said.
In 2002, 18 nonfatal accidents were reported in Colorado. Three were from faulty equipment, three from the victim being out of sight, three from a dropped firearm, three from careless handling of a firearm, one from a hunter who stumbled and fell, one from a trigger catching on an object and four from other situations.
Two of the 18 accidents came from Routt County.
In one of the local accidents, a 13-year-old boy sat on the muzzle of a rifle on a cot in a camping trailer. The 44-year-old father saw the boy sitting on the rifle, warned him not to sit on it and pulled the rifle out from under him, discharging the gun. The boy was shot in the rear.
The second accident occurred when a 44-year-old hunter was trying to move his rifle from the right shoulder to the left shoulder while carrying a set of deer antlers. The antlers entered the trigger guard and the rifle discharged three times. The bullet went through a bone near the hunter's armpit.
Accidents in which guns unintentionally go off are easier for Dorsey and Werner to explain than what happened Sept. 20.
Holverson's death certificate said he died between 5:45 and 6 a.m. from a black-powder gunshot wound from a .54-caliber muzzleloader. He died on Bureau of Land Management land about a mile west of Waller Reservoir in the King Mountain area of South Routt.
He was one of six people in a hunting party from Wisconsin and Indiana who had been hunting for about a week.
Three were bowhunters and the other three were muzzleloaders. The group had numerous hunting licenses, including those to kill elk and deer.
At the time of the shooting, the only piece of orange clothing Holverson was wearing was a faded orange hat. Colorado hunting law does not require bowhunters to wear any orange.
Allegedly, the shooter had only a Colorado license to kill a bull elk, which meant to legally shoot the animal he had to make sure it had four antlers. The coroner's office has said the shooter mistakenly took Holverson for an elk.
"It's a bad, bad thing that never should have happened," Dorsey said.
From the reports Werner received, she said the shot went off before it was light, which is illegal. "You always have to be sure of the target before pulling the trigger; be sure of the target and beyond," Werner said. "If you don't, things like this can happen."
One of the most tragic aspects of hunting accidents, Dorsey said, is they are almost always self-inflicted or caused by a member of the same hunting party. The impact on a hunter who shot a good friend or a brother-in-law can be devastating, she said.
"They always say the victim dies that day," Dorsey said, "and the shooter dies a little bit every day."
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