No boater, canoeist, angler or duck hunter intends to drown when boarding their watercraft for a few hours of fun.
Likewise, no bowhunter intends to fall to their death when climbing into a treestand for a few hours of anticipation and excitement.
And yet every year people die or get crippled because they left themselves vulnerable outdoors.
Take Tony Olson of Crivitz, Wisconsin, for example. On April 12, 2015, Olson set out to remove three treestands he left in the woods the previous autumn when heavy snows came early. He had retrieved two of the stands and was working on the last one 50 yards into the woods when the stitching on a climbing stick’s ratchet strap “exploded,” probably from normal wear, tear and weathering.
Olson wrote: “I fell backward from 20 feet onto a log. I spoke to God and knew I was injured terribly. I asked for and received the strength to crawl out. I spent a week in (a Green Bay hospital’s) intensive care unit, and nearly a full month in the hospital. A surgeon fused my lower 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 vertebrae.
“They taught me how to walk again. I have seven months of rehab ahead, and am happy with how things are going. I hope people understand that what happened to me could happen to anyone. At some point when climbing trees, no matter how careful you might be, you’re vulnerable.”
Unfortunately, Olson’s story isn’t rare. When I was editing Deer & Deer Hunting magazine during the 1990s I regularly added such accounts to a fat folder in my filing cabinet as part of the magazine’s then-ongoing national review of treestand accidents.
Each case reinforced a similar conclusion: Bones break and cords sever when hitting ground, rocks, roots, stumps or logs at 30 mph. Many of those firsthand stories described the miseries of paraplegic and quadriplegic lifestyles that began beneath a treestand. Still others described how husbands or fathers died while slipping off a step or platform, or trusting a dead branch 16 feet up a tree.
By 2000, most wildlife agencies realized hunters were more likely to be hurt or killed in treestand accidents than from accidental shootings. In 2008, for example, Wisconsin found that about two-thirds of all hunting-related injuries treated at a Level-I trauma center, including all such deaths, were caused by treestand falls.
Therefore, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources requires treestand safety training for all hunter-education programs. The DNR also encourages past participants to take its 15-minute online tree-stand safety course (http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/hunt/treestand.html).
The website includes two treestand safety videos, one of which is a nearly 11-minute review featuring Dr. David Ciresi, an Eau Claire, Wisconsin, trauma surgeon with the Mayo Clinic Health System.
Don’t worry. These aren’t old-school “Blood on the Highway” efforts that try to scare you straight. They provide good, solid, practical information that acknowledge many folks mistakenly think they’ll never take a tragic fall, even though they commit the same sins that injure hundreds of Wisconsin hunters each fall.
Meanwhile, researchers from the Wisconsin DNR and the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation reviewed two statewide hunter surveys in 2013, recent license-purchasing data, and medical records from 2009 to 2013 in northcentral Wisconsin to assess the risks of hunting from treestands. The result was two sobering in-depth reports, which can be found at http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/Hunt/documents/WSBRiskProbabilities.pdf and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26443558.
The researchers determined their northcentral study area had 16,556 to 16,902 deer hunters in a given year from 2009-2013, of which 39 (92 percent male) suffered injuries from treestand falls requiring medical care. Most injuries (23) affected the legs and feet, and included two fatalities and one paralysis case.
The risk of treestand fall injuries ranged from 6.0 per 10,000 hunters in 2009 to 3.6 per 10,000 hunters in 2013. Most involved bowhunters (77 percent), and occurred in the evening during descents from a treestand. If projected statewide to Wisconsin’s 750,000 bow, gun and crossbow hunters, those rates predict roughly 300 to 500 injuries from treestand falls annually.
And make no mistake: Deer hunters love hunting from elevated stands. Roughly 84 percent of Wisconsin gun-hunters and 91 percent of its bowhunters go aloft. Unfortunately, only 33 percent of bowhunters and 23 percent of gun-hunters reported always wearing a “safety harness or fall restraint” with a treestand.
And although bowhunting attracts fewer participants than gun-hunting, bowhunters face 4.5 times more risk because their long season offers more opportunities. Further, those risks increase the longer hunters remain active, with probabilities for serious injury rising to one out of 71 during 25 years of hunting. And the most avid hunters — those hunting the archery and firearm seasons over a lifetime — have a 1-in-20 chance of injury by falling from a stand.
In fact, Wisconsin’s bowhunters take at least twice as many tumbles and near-falls (28 percent) than gun-hunters (13 percent), according to the studies. And much like previous research, these studies found most falls occur outside the stand. Ascents and descents account for roughly 55 percent of falls and near-falls, and about 22 percent occur from the stand, 20 percent occur while attaching the stand, and 6 percent occur at other points.
Further, hang-on stands are most often linked to falls and near-falls than ladder stands, and the frequency was greater among gun-hunters (44 percent) than bowhunters (33 percent). Hang-on and ladder stands produced similar results among bowhunters (33 and 32 percent, respectively). Climbing stands accounted for 20 percent of bowhunting falls and 26 percent of gun-hunting falls. Less than 2 percent of deer hunters reported falls or near-falls from tripods or box-style stands.
Although the data suggest hang-on treestands pose the greatest risks, the researchers couldn’t pinpoint why. However, they speculated that hang-on stands likely require more strength and dexterity to attach; and usually require secondary climbing devices such as screw-in steps and climbing sticks, which can be smaller, more slippery and less visible.
Either way, the take-home lessons remain the same: Always wear a full-body harness when hunting from trees and, whenever possible, attach yourself to the tree or a sliding tether the entire time you’re off the ground.