Deceased: Mr A, young adult male, experienced
Hunter: Mr B, middle aged male, extremely experienced
Date of Accident: Withheld
Mr A and Mr B were well known to each other, and had hunted together on many previous occasions. On the evening before the accident, the party members had discussed the next day’s hunt, and predetermined their individual hunting areas. On the morning of the accident, Mr A left the hut and headed towards his hunting area wearing camouflage clothing and backpack. It is unknown if he was wearing his usual attire of a blaze orange ‘high vis’ cap. Mr B left the hut later that morning, travelling in a different direction.
After deerstalking for some time, Mr B saw what he thought were two deer in the bush nearby. He took a few moments to identify the animals as deer. His identification method included looking with the naked eye, looking through a rifle scope, using the rifle scope at different magnifications, and moving from left to right to gain different perspectives. He saw what he believed to be a deer, based on shape (including seeing antlers), colour and animal behaviour. He believed he saw one of the deer walk away. Mr B took a shot at a distance later measured at 20.3 meters from his target. Walking forward to recover the deer, he discovered he had shot Mr A.
Cause of Death
Gunshot wound to the head.
Comment and Key Lessons
Keep to your hunting area
Keeping to their own hunting areas was a method that these hunters had used many times before. Their usual routine was to allocate individual hunting areas the day before, and then stick to those predetermined areas. Some hunters may prefer to hunt together in the bush, which is acceptable. However if hunters are going to hunt separately, they should have predetermined hunting areas, and stick to those hunting areas. This minimises the possibility of a misidentified target. In popular hunting areas, parties are often allocated a particular ‘block’ (an area defined on a map) to greatly reduce the possibility of encountering other hunters. However it is important for all hunters to assume that other unknown people, for example trampers, could be in the area – even if they have been allocated a private hunting block.
Mr A and Mr B, along with the other members of the party, had discussed the planned hunting areas within the block the night before. It is not known why Mr A strayed from his allocated hunting area into Mr B’s area. This was also out of character for Mr A. If Mr A had not strayed into Mr B’s hunting area, the accident would not have happened. For hunters working on individually allocated areas, it is prudent to avoid shooting in the direction of adjoining hunting areas, and have buffer zones such as a spur or ridge between adjoining hunting areas.
Wear high visibility clothing
The human eye is highly sensitive to red colours. Wearing high-visibility clothing – usually bright orange or bright blue – has become common practice for hunters. High-visibility clothing is worn because of the extreme contrast to the surrounding bush, and its ability to be seen at considerable distance (up to a kilometre in open areas). In low light conditions it even appears to glow. Unlike humans, deer have little or no sensitivity to bright orange, which makes hunters almost invisible to deer. A secondary benefit is that wearing blaze orange makes it easier for searchers to find a lost or injured hunter.
It is however unwise to consider blaze orange as a fail-safe solution. Other hunters have also been mis-identified as deer despite wearing orange. It’s possible that in certain light conditions, the hide of a deer can look similar to blaze orange. Hunters are encouraged to wear clothing that contrasts with both the environment and the target species. Mr B’s usual practise was to wear his blaze orange cap. However, for an unknown reason, he was instead wearing a camouflage cap, and this strongly contributed to the fatal outcome.
Positively identify your target
While keeping to your hunting area and wearing high visibility clothing are two sound strategies to reduce hunting accidents, they do not remove a hunter’s responsibility to positively identify their target beyond all doubt.
Hunters should not identify a target based on movement, shape, sound or colour. In this case the decision to fire was based on sighting; what appeared to be immature antlers (possibly tree branches), movement similar to that of a deer feeding (the victim moving about) and colour that was similar to a deer hide (possibly the combination of the effect of shadow on the victim’s clothing, or a natural source). The shooter aimed for a point where he assumed the deer’s head would be, based on the location of the perceived antlers. However the shooter did not have an unobstructed visual identification of the target, and may have based the decision to fire on a number of assumptions and biases, or heuristic traps. It is reasonable to say that the tragic accident was caused by the removal of safeguards, however these lapses are not an excuse for mis-identifying the target.
MODERATED BY JOHNNY MULHERON
This article was re-published from the March 2017 issue of FMC’s Backcountry magazine. To subscribe to the print version, please visit www.fmc.org.nz/aboutbackcountry.
The Backcountry Accidents Column, in one form or another, has been a feature of FMC publications since 1938. Read Shaun Barnett’s article on the history of the column to understand the thinking behind this highly regarded series of articles.