By RICH LANDERS | The Spokesman-Review

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — While most shooters would never walk onto an active gun range without ear plugs or muffs in place, hunters who use firearms tend to neglect precautions to protect their hearing.

In the heat of the hunt, it doesn't seem to matter.

Yet every shot at a bird, deer or elk erodes one of our most valuable hunting assets.

“Shooter's ear – we see it every day in our business,” said Lance Kraemer of Starkey Hearing Technologies, a manufacturer of hearing aids and electronic hearing protection.

“And every day we hear from hunters who wish they'd been clued in on hearing protection at a younger age.”

Procrastination used to be understandable. Ear plugs may prevent a hunter from hearing the wing beat of a flushing pheasant or the snap of a stick that might indicate a deer is approaching.

But technology has erased the shortcomings of the standard ear plug. Excuses for neglecting hearing protection in the field are obsolete.

A single gunshot, rated at about 140dB, can cause permanent hearing damage, according to government guidelines. Maybe it's just a little at a time, but the damage adds up hunt after hunt.

Bird hunters who shoot multiple rounds a day are at high risk, especially waterfowl hunters in a blind where they are bombarded with the deafening muzzle blast from their partners' guns as well as their own.

Ear plugs of some sort should be on the required equipment list for every member of every family headed to the field to hunt with a firearm.

Inexpensive ear plugs with noise-suppressing mechanical baffles ($10-$15) are a viable alternative for any budget.

But any plug must be properly inserted. “Foam plugs are notorious for working out slightly so they're offering less than 50 percent of maximum protection,” Kraemer said, citing Occupational Safety and Health Administration research.

I've been using standard ear plugs while hunting for decades, but not before I'd already lost some hearing acuity. Even in my protective years, it's been hard to be consistent at plugging my ears.

For instance, while hunting wild turkeys, I usually insert ear plugs before taking a stand and calling. But I often remove the plugs when I'm moving or setting up again for a better chance of hearing distant yelping or gobbling.

More than once I've had a gobbler come into sight unexpectedly while my plugs were out. Since the movement of reinserting the plugs could spook a sharp-eyed tom, I'll bite the bullet, call the bird and perhaps take the shot with ears unprotected.

Technology has made these lapses of protection unnecessary.

Trapshooters and other gun-range enthusiasts have been steadfastly using electronic hearing protection for years. Amplified muffs allow a shooter to hear conversations normally while instantly suppressing the sharp noise of a gunshot.

Muffs are very effective and continue to be my choice at a shooting range. In fact, I used the maximum protection of ear plugs combined with muffs to safely endure a Ted Nugent rock concert after interviewing the celebrity notorious for being extremely loud.

Bulky muffs aren't always handy in the field, but small, convenient electronic alternatives are available.

Some manufacturers are using hearing aid technology to produce electronic hearing protection devices, with automatic noise suppression, that are no more bothersome than ear plugs. Models come in three styles:

. Custom (about $1,200).

. In the canal (about $400).

. Behind the ear with a tube to the plug in the canal (about $300).

I field tested two of these types with positive results.

In-the-canal models are ready to use out of the box. The tiny devices come with different sized soft-rubber covers that fit the product in the ear like a regular ear plug.

Custom models are fitted by hearing-aid dealers, who make an impression of your ear canal for a perfect and comfortable fit. These larger devices also have more features and volume adjustments.

Electronic hearing protection devices are not considered hearing aids, although they share some of the same technology.

“Most hearing aids don't have a seal; they're vented,” Kraemer said. “They let air into the ear so the user can hear ambient sound to prevent the feeling of having the ear plugged in everyday living.

“A hearing aid can be adjusted so it won't amplify damaging loud sounds, but since there's no seal, a hearing aid is not providing ear protection.”

Also, hearing aids are custom-engineered to pick up frequencies an individual is missing. “There's a lot more science involved in a hearing aid, hence the extra cost,” Kraemer said.

The SoundGear custom and in-canal products I tested provide about the same amount of protection as a properly inserted foam plug. The big difference is that the user can hear normally as though the ear isn't plugged.

The digital sound enhancement has a slightly unnatural sharpness but is not uncomfortable or distracting.

The custom model with volume adjustment enhances hearing with high-definition sound reproduction that's especially useful when hunting from a stand.

The amplification is meant to compensate only for the hearing loss from insertion of the device. However, while the manufacturer can't claim hearing enhancement, I found a clear improvement with both models in what I could hear without the devices in place.

I spend a lot more time listening to chickadees and other critters than I do absorbing the blast of a gunshot, but I want to be equipped for both.

The electronic hearing protection models I tested have a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) of 24-25dB. That means a muzzle blast rated at 140dB, which poses immediate danger to hearing, is reduced to about 115 dB – the rate of a baby's cry or a jet ski.

National standards say 115dB will cause hearing damage if sustained for 15 minutes.

Electronic devices use sound-activated compression to trigger instant suppression of any noise over 95dB.

“These products are bringing noise down into a safer range,” Kraemer said. “You're still exposed to loud sounds, but at a safer level. The guideline is that exposure to noise over 85db for eight hours will cause permanent damage.

“The biggest problem is that most hunters don't wear any ear protection at all, not even kids,” he said. “They rationalize that they'll only take a few shots.”

Take this advice from someone who's already lost the joy of hearing the cascading call of a canyon wren or the distant bugle of a bull elk: protect your hearing with something.

If you want the best performance, buy electronic protection devices that will guard your hearing from muzzle blasts while helping you hear clearly for better communication, hunting success and safety in the woods.

Let's hope that educated observation doesn't fall on deaf ears.

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The original story can be found on The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review's website.