WASHINGTON – The number of Maryland hunters injured in tree-stand accidents has risen so dramatically that falls from tree stands are now the most common type of hunting accident reported in the state.
A database analysis by Capital News Service shows that tree-stand accidents accounted for one of every three accidents reported between 1985 and 1998 — and they rose to almost half of all hunting accidents in the state between 1990 and 1998.
The reason is that more people are using tree stands and not enough of them are being careful, said Vic Maccallum, safety education division supervisor for the state Natural Resources Police.
“A lot of the folks who are having accidents, if they would wear harnesses, they wouldn’t get hurt,” Maccallum said.
Among other findings of the CNS analysis of the 368 hunting accidents reported in Maryland between 1985 and 1998:
— just under 7 percent, or 24 accidents over the 14 years, were fatal;
— 63 percent involved firearms;
— 2 percent involved alcohol;
— 55 percent were self-inflicted;
— and 18 percent occurred on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the first day of deer firearm season.
The number of tree-stand accidents in Maryland rose gradually during the late 1980s and then jumped at the start of the ’90s, going from four in 1989 to nine in 1990. The number shot to 17 a year later, and has dropped into single digits only twice since then.
The actual number of tree-stand accidents in Maryland is still fairly low when compared with the number of deer hunters in the state. Officials say about 100,000 people are licensed to hunt deer in Maryland each year, while no more than 17 tree-stand accidents have been reported in any year.
The accidents can happen to even the most experienced hunters, who might slip on a damp platform, lose their balance, get dizzy or fall asleep. Sometimes a portable stand will come loose and slip down a tree, especially if the bark is wet. Other times a stand will be resting on a tree limb that breaks. On rare occasions, hunters have been wounded when the fall causes their gun to discharge.
Injuries range from scrapes and sprains to broken bones, paralysis and death. Of 111 tree-stand accidents reported to the state between 1990 and 1998, however, only five were fatal.
Of the Maryland hunters who use tree stands, most appear to prefer portable, manufactured stands, although some build their own permanent perches. Nearly a quarter of tree-stand accidents in Maryland were caused by homemade stands that rotted or broke.
Tree stands have long been popular with bow hunters, who need to be close to their quarry. But officials say the stands are getting greater use these days from deer hunters with firearms, because sitting 8 feet or more off the ground keeps the hunter’s scent out of the animals’ sensory range.
And a burgeoning deer population has led to extended hunting seasons and higher bag limits than were allowed 25 years ago, Maccallum said, bringing Maryland’s deer hunters into the woods more frequently and raising the chances of accidents.
But Maccallum said the explosion of tree-stand accidents recorded by the state may not even fully reveal the problem: While medical workers are required by law to report gunshot victims who seek treatment, the same is not true for people injured in tree-stand accidents.
“My guess is that there were some tree-stand accidents that were not reported to us,” Maccallum said.
National figures on tree-stand accidents are not currently collected, said David Knotts, chief executive officer of the International Hunter Education Association, which compiles hunting accident data in the United States and Canada. One of the big reasons is that tree stands are used primarily in the eastern half of the country, where most white-tailed deer live.
“A lot of the tree-stand data that we have is anecdotal,” Knotts said. Although the overall number of hunting accidents has been declining over the last 30 years, tree-stand accidents seem to have spiked up, he said.
“We’re very concerned about tree-stand accidents. We know that they are high,” Knotts said.
“My personal observation is the failure to use a safety harness and the failure to properly connect or install” tree stands are the primary causes of accidents, he said.
Concern about the rising number of accidents led some tree-stand manufacturers to get together several years ago and establish safety standards for their equipment, out of fear that the federal government would step in and regulate their products.
“If we keep letting the public get hurt in tree stands, the U.S. government is going to come along and they’re either going to outlaw [them] or they’re going to say you have to meet … standards,” said John Woller Sr., president of Summit Specialties, a Decatur, Ala., tree-stand company.
So far, five manufacturers have won the seal of approval from the Treestand Manufacturers Association, and 11 more have applied for certification, Woller said.
Though Maccallum said he refrains from endorsing any particular type of tree stand, “you get what you pay for.”
He said students in Maryland’s hunter safety classes are taught to never carry equipment while climbing a tree stand, to follow manufacturers’ directions, to choose only healthy, living trees, and to always use a safety belt.