AUGUSTA — When Maine’s muzzleloading season for deer ended on Dec. 11, Michael Sawyer was pleased.

The fall deer hunt saw only one hunter injured instead of many, and unlike last year, none were killed.

Sawyer is Maine’s recreational safety coordinator with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in Augusta. He oversees the hunting safety course, which was enacted by the Legislature and became mandatory in January 1986.

Last year, there were nine hunting incidents, which included one fatal. A New Gloucester man died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound while hunting alone in the Greenville area on the last day of the firearms deer season, Sawyer said on Wednesday.

This year, a first-time deer hunter from Sidney blasted a hole in her foot on Nov. 25 after the gun discharged while she was resting the barrel on her booted foot.

The department refers to hunting shootings not as accidents, but incidents, because accidents don’t involve recklessness and negligence, retired Warden Lt. Doug Tibbetts said Wednesday in Bangor.

“An accident implies that nobody was at fault, but with hunting incidents, it is hugely negligence that is involved,” said Tibbetts, who retired in July after a 39-year career that saw the hunting safety wheel spin from bad to best.

The Sidney incident, combined with six others during bird seasons — five of which came during October’s upland game bird hunt — injured seven hunters, making this year one of the safest on record for a sport that attracts more than 200,000 people.

“It was very good,” Sawyer said. “I think it points out that hunting is a very safe sport.”

Safer than fishing, according to a 2004 National Shooting Sports Foundation report. That study cited an estimated 19.2 million active hunters in 2001 with 720 injuries occurring, compared with 44.4 million anglers and 79,369 fishing-related injuries.

Maine began keeping statistics in 1940, when there were 13 fatalities in 25 incidents, according to a department chart.

The worst ever recorded year was 1952, with 19 fatalities in 70 incidents.

It took 44 years and several new laws, however, to finally achieve zero fatalities by the end of hunting season in 1984.

After the Karen Wood killing in Hermon in November 1988 by a deer hunter who failed to identify his target and shot a housewife in her backyard, the Legislature enacted a target identification law, Tibbetts said.

That means hunters cannot shoot at a target unless they first determine it is the wild animal or wild bird being sought.

“You can see a noticeable difference after about 1989,” Sawyer said. “1989 was the last year where we were over 20 incidents, and then we began to drop through the ’90s, and we even dropped more here in the last two years.”

Maine’s safest hunting season on record happened nearly 10 years ago in 1998. There were only two big-game incidents, one during the upland birds hunt, and no deaths.

“The whole atmosphere of hunting now is that it’s much more safer than it used to be,” Sawyer said.

“It’s a far cry from what it was,” Tibbetts added.

In both 2003 and 2005, there were just five incidents each and no fatalities.

In a Maine Fish and Wildlife magazine article this fall, Sawyer said Maine began firearms safety education in the 1950s.

That course has since evolved to require a minimum of 12 hours of instruction. Lectures include firearms knowledge, ethics and responsibilities, survival, map and compass, and wildlife management.

Sawyer said laws like the use of hunter orange from 1973 to present, and prohibitions on certain hunting practices, have helped to reduce incidents.

Prior to 1973, Tibbetts said hunters wore plaid clothing — either green, black and green, or red.

Failure to identify targets, he said, was a major problem.

In the ’70s, shooting someone while hunting wasn’t a felony. Instead, Tibbetts said it was considered almost like collateral damage.

George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, refers to the state’s hunting safety history as “a remarkable story.”

“From the hunter safety program to orange clothing to the target identification law, we’ve stepped up to make our sport one of the safest things you can do outdoors,” Smith said Thursday by e-mail.

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