The Wenas Wildlife Area attracts more target shooters than any other wildlife area in Washington state. But as some fear for their safety and the state has moved to impose restrictions, shooters worry about too many rules.

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Mark McLean recalls how his friends were hunting in the Wenas Wildlife Area when they found themselves running for cover as semiautomatic gunfire came screaming in their direction.

It’s just not a safe place, McLean recently told a state-appointed advisory group seeking solutions.

In the past 15 years, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has received 84 safety complaints about the Wenas Wildlife Area, including 15 firsthand cases of people feeling unsafe or having shots fired toward them. And it’s possible not all incidents are reported.

Officials said the area attracts more target shooters than any other wildlife area in Washington.

The challenge of finding solutions has fallen on an advisory committee of shooters, neighbors and recreational users, who began monthly meetings in May. Recommendations could come next month.

The group has reached consensus on several topics, such as the need for more education and signage, but remains divided on some critical issues, including the future of dispersed shooting throughout the 105,460-acre area north of Selah and how to improve designated target-shooting sites.

The wildlife department’s efforts to address safety, trash and illegal activity related to target shooting began in 2011. Last year, the department announced plans for two shooting ranges and a ban on dispersed shooting. But the resulting outcry forced a stalemate as opponents argued that shooters should have more options.

That led the department last fall to form the advisory group.

Supporters say there should be few restrictions on where shooting is allowed, providing people follow existing rules, such as not shooting at glass, appliances and other illegal targets and ensuring there’s a backstop to catch stray shots.

“Nobody wants to prohibit dispersed shooting,” Norm Peck, an Ellensburg resident representing the Kittitas Audubon Society, said during the committee’s July meeting. “We just want to make it safer and more concentrated.”

Plans slowly formed to designate and improve certain areas for target shooting. But it became clear some group members believe that wouldn’t be enough to draw shooters away from dangerous areas and prevent conflicts.

Walt Hyde, president of the Wenas Valley Backcountry Horsemen Chapter, said allowing shooting to continue on Buffalo Road near a popular trail for horses, bikers and hikers would effectively eliminate those three activities. Yakima Mule Deer Foundation state chair Rachel Voss and mountain-biking representative Brian Lund agreed, noting safety must be the top priority.

Jim Lydigsen, volunteer coordinator with the NRA, says it’s “unacceptable” to limit dispersed shooting that follows existing regulations. He thinks better education and communication among user groups would lead the clear majority of shooters to move to designated sites and eliminate conflict.

Bret Hollar, a 4-H firearms instructor in Ellensburg, agrees and notes it’s getting harder to find places to shoot.

Opponents of dispersed shooting don’t dispute the value of educating the public, but they worry about the few irresponsible shooters who would ignore signs and recommendations.

“I hate to say it, but I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere,” Hyde said, noting about half the committee supports no limitations while others would prefer to see shooting barred in problem areas.

Despite that lack of agreement,the wildlife department still plans to take several early draft recommendations from the panel to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission in December.

Mike Livingston, wildlife Region III director, said they’ve already started the difficult process of changing the department’s target shooting rules to match those on Department of Natural Resources lands, which include a clearer definition of backstops. The committee also urged improving ways for the public to report concerns.