One morning Bambi came to grief. . . . Bambi felt a fearful blow that made him stagger . . . Fear gripped his heart so that his breath failed as he rushed blindly on. "Bambi," by Felix Salten

Millions of children have shed tears over Bambi's shooting, but now a group of Virginia hunters has managed to get federal money to teach children in the state that deer hunting is not a cause for crying. It is part of "fundamental wildlife management," the Virginians say.

Assured of at least $52,000 this year and the possibility of $1 million more over the next five years, the politically connected sportsmen have devised "Operation Respect," which will tell up to 140,000 Virginia school children that deer like Bambi sometimes have to be "harvested" for their own good.

The sportsmen behind Operation Respect -- an acronym for "Responsible, Educated Sportsmen Promoting Ethical Conduct Together" -- say the story of Bambi is not only misleadingly sentimental but just plain wrong in its depiction of the family life of deer.

"Deer don't group in families. Bucks are polygamous," complains John P. Randolph, an official of the Virginia Game Commission, which will administer Operation Respect. Randolph says "Bambi" is a "classic example" of how a popular myth can damage wildlife management techniques that keep deer alive.

"I think that's pretty sound thinking," agrees James Jones, a regional official of the U.S. Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency that has agreed to fund the program. "I tend to go along with it. There's no question that the 'Bambi' story is reflected in people's attitudes toward hunting."

To right these wrongs, Operation Respect plans a three-tiered, $1.6 million approach, starting with a one-hour program for elementary school children.

That program will teach wildlife management, including the need for thinning out animals considered to be over populated. A basic gun safety course for students 12 years old and above and an advance course dealing in hunting techniques, trapping, archery and other subjects are also scheduled.

"It'll be a super program," said Jones who notes that the Fish and Wildlife Service has more than $11 million to spend on such efforts last fiscal year.

The Virginia program would run over a five-year period and would use state as well as federal funds. Jones said the first federal grant for the program will be announced soon.

In Virginia, supporters of Operation Respect apparently see other desirable side effects. One is to counter the efforts of the antihunting faction, identified by Randolph as groups like Friends of Animals and Defenders of Wildlife.

"The antis make a lot of noise and their emotional arguments can be convincing to naive members of the public," an Operation Respect brochure says.

That statement infuriates some of the Virginia group's foes. "We are not antihunting," counters Toby Cooper, program director for the Washington-based Defenders of Wildlife. "We do a lot of things that hunters hate, like urging the closing of seasons on birds that are declining."

Cooper and others complain that the thrust of the Virginia program is wrong. "I think if they want to do something good, they should talk about something meaningful. Who cares about image?"

Virginia Circuit Court Judge William I. Moncure of Blackstone, a small town in southern Virginia, does. "The average hunter can present a better image to the public," says Moncure, who sits on Operation Respect's governing council with two state legislators, Dels. J. Paul Councill Jr. (D-Franklin) and A. Victor Thomas (D-Roanoke).

One way their program hopes to upgrade the hunter's image in Virginia is to insist on strict enforcement of the state's hunting laws, a job that game wardens cannot accomplish, according to a Respect brochure.

"Only through peer pressure can we weed out the slobs," it says. "Reporting a [hunting] violation may be distasteful, but it is necessary."

Interior Department's Jones said federal officials emphasis on hunter ethics. Hopefully it will produce better hunters in the field."

Virginia's Randolph defends the program's estimated $1.6 million budget, saying the fuds will come from the federal government's excise taxes on handguns and archery equipment. CAPTION: Picture, Sportsmen, wildlife officials say "harvesting" Bambi is sometimes necessary. Copyright (c) Walt Disney Productions