Tether can save tree-stand hunters from injury, death
NEWARK TOWNSHIP It was early Nov. 8, 2010, the heart of bow-hunting season, and Janesville Deputy Police Chief Danny Davis was perched high in a Cottonwood tree on a farm west of Beloit.
Davis was hunting from a tree stand, and he was reaching up to snap his safety harness into a fall-restraint tether lassoed to the tree when a screw holding his tree stand in place broke loose.
The stand flipped like a trap door, ejecting Davis.
Davis watched helplessly as the leaf-strewn ground seemed to fly up at him. He hit the ground hard and felt a sharp pain in his back. Physicians at Beloit Memorial Hospital would later tell him he had broken a vertebra in the fall.
As he lay on the ground in pain, Davis pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911. Even before emergency responders arrived, Davis already was scolding himself over his fall.
He knew better than to climb a tree without first hooking into a lifeline.
Davis, who is a hunter safety instructor and an avid deer hunter, now follows a simple safety rule for anyone who hunts from a tree stand: secure yourself with a full-body safety harness and a fall-restraint tether system from the time that you leave the ground until you're back on the ground.
Equipment failure can lead to falls from tree stands, but falls happen for many other reasons, including hunters slipping, losing their balance or even falling asleep while hunting.
Safety harnesses and fall-restraint systems are designed to tether hunters to trees while they're climbing and as they’re hunting from elevated tree stands. When used properly, the devices can halt falls, preventing people from being injured or killed.
The devices cost between $40 and $130 and are available at most hunting and sporting goods retailers.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources reports that falls from tree stands are the leading cause of injury for hunters during gun deer season, which starts Nov. 19. The agency estimates that while two-thirds of hunters who use tree stands own fall-restraint systems, only about one-third of them actually use the devices.
Davis said some hunters either don’t use the devices or disconnect them while hunting because they say the devices get in the way or make excessive noise.
“It’s like, well, if these things are going to scare the deer away and make it hard to move, I’m not going to use them,” Davis said.
Davis said others use the devices, but, as in his fall last year, they fail to tether themselves while climbing or while getting situated in tree stands. Both are times when falls can easily happen, but many hunters avoid tying in then because they’re in a hurry.
“It’s a pain. It’s inconvenient. It takes extra time to tie in, and we’re impatient. We tend to just want to get on to the next thing, which is hunting,” Davis said.
That impatience landed Davis in a torso brace for weeks. But it could have been worse.
A 2008 study of hunters treated at University Hospital in Madison’s trauma center during the nine-day gun deer seasons spanning 1999 to 2004 showed that 66 percent of those injured fell out of tree stands. The majority needed operations for back, hip and shoulder fractures.
Yet some wound up with head trauma and a small percentage were killed, according to the study.
One thing Davis did right during his fall: He was carrying a cell phone, which he used to call 911 and to reach his spouse, who wasn’t expecting him home until much later in the day.
“Without the phone, I could have laid there all day,” Davis said.
His phone signal allowed 911 dispatchers to use GPS mapping to pinpoint his location on the 2,000-acre spread of private land where he was hunting. Emergency responders arrived in just 20 minutes.
Davis plans to continue to practice what he preaches to tree-stand hunters in hunter safety classes: Use safety harnesses and fall-restraint equipment the whole hunt, every hunt. Looking back, he can't believe he didn’t.
“I'm not going to protect myself, all over a deer? It seems silly,” Davis said.
Tree stand tips
-- Secure yourself with an approved safety harness and a fall-restraint device that ties to a tree, and stay connected from the time that your feet leave ground until you're back down. Learn how to use your fall- restraint device properly while climbing and descending, and make sure you know how it will operate during a fall.
-- Never remove your fall-restraint device while climbing, rigging a tree stand or while hunting from a tree stand.
-- Use approved tree stands and climbing devices and place them only on trees that are healthy, sturdy and have no loose bark. Choose trees with no nearby hazards, including large rocks, tree branches, stumps or fence lines. Anything between you and the ground could compound injuries in a fall.
-- Use separate haul lines to lift and lower bulky items including bows and guns, making sure firearms are unloaded.
-- Regularly inspect fall-restraint ropes, safety harnesses and attached hardware for signs of wear, and check tree stands for rust or weather damage. Replace all worn or damaged equipment. Remove and store tree stands out of the elements at the end of the hunting season.
-- Before a hunting trip, tell at least one person exactly where you're going, where your tree stand is located, and when you plan to return.
-- While hunting, carry emergency signaling devices, including cell phones, two-way radios, whistles, signal flares and flashlights in reachable pockets where they can't fall out. The devices can help others to locate you faster if you fall or become stuck hanging by your fall-restraint device.
To learn more: For more information and online training on tree stand safety, visit dnr.wi.gov/org/es/enforcement/safety/treestandsafety.htm
Sources: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Janesville Deputy Police Chief and hunter safety instructor Danny Davis, Tree Stand Manufacturers Association.