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Outdoors: Deaths reinforce need for tree stand safety

With the firearm deer season underway, the Minnesota Department of Resources (DNR) urges hunters to take precautions that avoid crippling or fatal injuries when using tree stands. Three Minnesota deer hunters died in tree stand related incidents during opening weekend Nov. 5-6, while several others were injured in non-fatal accidents.

Minnesota's 16-foot height restriction for elevated stands was removed prior to the 2011 hunting seasons. Capt. Mike Hammer, DNR Enforcement Division education program coordinator, said the severity of injuries tends to increase with the distance the victim falls.

"For this reason, it makes sense to place stands as near the ground as practical," Hammer said. "However, even short falls can cause spinal injuries and paralysis or death."

Improper installation and careless use of tree stands and safety belts are among major causes of tree stand accidents. Hammer said these findings prove the wisdom of checking equipment before and during the hunting season. He advised hunters to check moving parts of portable stands for wear, tighten loose nuts and bolts, and replace worn or rusty hardware.

"Most portable tree stands are well-designed and made of sturdy materials," Hammer said, "but they still require maintenance. Anchor straps and safety chains can get worn. Sometimes cracks develop in metal or plastic parts. Every part of every stand should be inspected before climbing into it the first time, and then periodically throughout the season."

Hammer said the same is true of permanent tree stands. Wood eventually rots, and nails rust and work loose.

"If part of a stand is deteriorating, don't just shrug it off," Hammer said. "Is the time saved by not fixing it worth the chance of being paralyzed for the rest of your life?"

Hunters should pay special attention to steps and ladders, since they may climb up and down those rungs in the dark, in heavy clothing, and sometimes in bad weather. "That is not the time you want to discover that a step is faulty," Hammer said.

He recommends adding a nonslip covering to tree stand decks and steps to help prevent loss of traction with muddy boots or in rain or snow. Inspect safety harness for wear. Look over clasps to ensure they work properly. Be sure to use a haul rope when climbing into a stand and to pull equipment up.

Always wear a safety harness when putting a stand up in the field. A full-body harness is the only type that provides real protection. If possible, also keep a harness tethered to the tree when climbing up to and down from a stand, and when entering and leaving a stand. Studies of tree-stand accidents show that many falls occur at these times.

To further reduce your risk of tree-stand falls, observe the following rules:

• Closely follow the manufacturer's instructions for installing and using a portable stand.

• Choose the stand location carefully, avoiding trees that are leaning, dead or dying; avoid trees with leaves, vines or other features that will prevent proper use of a stand.

• Don't leave equipment on the ground directly below while climbing up or down; a fall on an arrow or other item can worsening injuries.

• Tell someone about hunting plans and expected return time.

• Carry survival gear, including food, water, a blanket and matches, and a whistle or air horn to signal for help.