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Bill Hilts Jr.: Changes needed in crossbow regulations

Crossbow season for big game in the Southern Zone of New York’s early archery season opens Saturday.

Thanks to a special inclusion as part of the governor’s executive budget bill in April 2014, the use of the crossbow was finally allowed during the last 10 days of the Northern Zone archery season and the last 14 days of the Southern Zone early archery time frame. They can also be used during the late archery season, as well as during the regular season when firearms are allowed.

However, before you decide that you might want to take up crossbow hunting for deer and bear, the first thing you should do is fully understand what the regulations are in the Empire State. It’s confusing for the novice and intermediate big game hunter, especially when it comes to what’s required and what limitations are in place for the actual equipment.

For starters, a crossbow is not considered archery equipment in New York. To be able to hunt during the early or late archery seasons, you must purchase a muzzleloader privilege. Because it’s not considered archery gear (it is archery equipment in states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio), you don’t have to take the bowhunter safety education class, only the firearms class. One big downside to that is you must be 14 to use a crossbow. If it were archery equipment, a 12-year-old would be able to use one to hunt big game.

On a side note, to show how ludicrous this all is, the crossbow is not included during the Youth Firearms Deer Hunt held over Columbus Day weekend. You can use a gun but not a crossbow. And because it’s not considered archery equipment, you can’t use a crossbow in archery-only areas around the state.

“Crossbows are just another management tool,” says Dale Dunkelberger of Lockport, Region 9 representative to the state’s Conservation Fund Advisory Board in Albany. “With the numbers of hunters dropping out due to age or health limitations, the crossbow is simply another way to get people back out hunting and enjoying the outdoors.”

Dunkelberger, a master hunter safety instructor with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation’s volunteer teaching ranks, does everything he can to educate the general public about crossbows in the firearms and the bowhunting disciplines.

“I have the students shoot crossbows in my classes," he said. "I’ve had great feedback from junior hunters and from the ladies who have taken these courses. They really enjoy them because they are relatively easy to use, and they are accurate to shoot.”

That’s two of the arguments put forth by a relatively small group of bowhunters who have let their voices be heard. They have done everything they can to oppose crossbow usage and any further expansion, preferring the state Legislature to control crossbows rather than DEC’s Division of Wildlife.

We could narrow that down even further. The state Senate has supported crossbows and passed legislation that would allow DEC to manage them as they see fit. However, the Assembly has not been able to release it from the Environmental Conservation Committee, controlled by downstate legislators, so there’s never been a floor vote on the proposed bills.

If you would like to see crossbows managed by DEC, the best thing you can do is to become proactive. Write letters to your state representatives in Albany and tell them how disappointed you are. A personal letter can go a long way.

It’s also important to join groups such as the NY Crossbow Coalition (www.nycrossbowcoalition.com). “We’ve seen a 20 percent increase in membership every year,” said Rick McDermott, president of the group that was formed in 2012.

“We are ahead of that pace this year. People are beginning to realize that they need to be involved if they want to enact change. ... We're receiving a lot of comments from people. People who can no longer draw a compound bow who want to keep hunting, sportsmen who hunt with both and enjoy both, and even from people who don't hunt with a crossbow but don't understand why fellow hunters would prevent others from spending time afield."

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It also can go both ways. Crossbows can be used as an introduction to big game hunting with the next step being to use a compound or long bow. That would bring more into the archery fold.

Safety is of the utmost importance and it’s important to know your crossbow. Jeff Pippard at Niagara Outdoors in North Tonawanda emphasizes the importance of shooting your crossbow to know its limitations. “Make sure that the arrow is seated properly and is flush with the string,” Pippard said. “Never dry fire a crossbow and keep your fingers below the string before you shoot. You could severely damage a finger or blow your crossbow up.”

After reading the crossbow safety information in the hunting regulations guide or on the DEC website, make sure you sign the Crossbow Certificate of Qualification and clip it out. You are required to keep it with you when afield, with your hunting license.

As far as the discharge of a crossbow, you must be at least 250 feet from a dwelling, farm building or other occupied building or play area. That number is 150 feet for archery equipment and 500 feet for firearms.

Another important thing to check is the details of what is allowed as far as crossbow specifications. The minimum limb width is 17 inches from the outer tips of the limbs (excluding wheels and cams, uncocked). Maximum peak draw weight is 200 pounds, minimum is 100. Overall length from the butt-stock to the front of the limbs is 24 inches. With a constantly changing industry surrounding us, some of these numbers could be easily changed … if DEC was in the driver’s seat managing the big game resource like they do for everything else.

At a time when we need to see more people hunting and enjoying themselves outdoors, we are fighting among ourselves to restrict those numbers. The bottom line is that having an attitude against crossbows is selfish. “I don’t want more people in my woods” type of philosophy is just plain wrong. When some of the earlier crossbow regulations were being discussed, the rules would allow hunters to use them on their own private lands. It wasn’t on public land. It was still removed from the proposal. Opponents would dictate what we can and can’t use for hunting.

As we lose hunters, deer numbers are increasing in some areas. It’s time to make some changes.

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