Human Nature: Midwest Disabled Hunts on Target
October 20, 2009
Father and son, Barry and Jason Hite, are happy to be out enjoying the Rice Lake disabled deer hunt with Regional Director Tom Melius.
For disabled persons and the seemingly endless flow of community volunteers that eagerly offer their services and wares, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) Midwest National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) disability hunts are more than just a harvest of game, it's an exercise in the best of human nature-respect, dignity, joy and compassion.
For many of the participants it is the first time since their injury that they have had the opportunity to finally be out in the woods again. It's the first chance to be back in the field since their injury. Severe disabilities and transportation issues make it difficult for them to get outdoors. Family members are either unable or unwilling to take them out. "We help people to revisit a privilege they used to have in life in being outdoors," says Dave Bennett, refuge manager for the 2,200 acre Rydell NWR. "We introduce them to an activity that they used to be able to do and now, while it is still limited, they again can feel the excitement of hunting or the ability to be outdoors and see nature first hand again."
Refuge hunt volunteers service up to twenty deer hunters with a range of disabilities, from blindness to quadriplegics. While the hunters use various aids to hunt with including, personal aides and air blow tubes, the event is more about the deer camp experience. The hunters socialize, dine on venison, play cards, and tell stories. Sometimes they just enjoy nature, even if it's just sitting in the woods alone. It's a kind of peace, serenity and healing that non-disabled people have access to, but more often than, not take for granted.
Disabled hunters relish this opportunity. It's an opportunity that the hunters have been longing for and look forward to. When they arrive they are excited and perhaps even a bit nervous, as for many it is the first time. But their nerves are quelled because they know that "we are here to help them," says Bennett.
The character of the deer camp exhibited what is a universal theme of sorts around other regional disabled hunts. It was as if the harvesting of a deer was secondary, almost irrelevant. More important than the bagging of a deer was the camaraderie, self sufficiency, personal satisfaction and peace experienced by hunters-something that would not be possible were it not for the Service disabled hunt program.
Bennett recounts a story of a hunter who had suffered a severe stroke 6 years prior to the hunt. The stroke rendered him with very limited speech ability and with severe pain whenever he was touched. His mobility was by wheel chair. "After we tucked him into a blind", says Bennett, "without having said a word, his hand was twitching with enthusiasm. He was so elated, he could hardly stand it for the excitement he had." Later the hunter was able to communicate to Bennett and the refuge volunteers that it was the first time in 6 years that he had been out in the woods.
Rydell's Minnesota State award winning disability program is American Disability Act (ADA) regulation compliant. But Rydell, which has the most accessible refuge in the nation, is only one NWR in a number around the region that features a disability program.
In early October, the third annual Rice Lake NWR took center stage with its disabled deer hunt in McGregor, Minn. Headed up by refuge manager, Walt Ford, the event attracted 20 hunters from around the region, including Shawn Duncan a hemiplegic from Hibbing, Minn. and two blind hunters, Carey McWilliams of Fargo, N.D. and Randall Gebhard of Moorhead, Minn., all of whom have tagged deer despite their disabilities. (Hear firsthand accounts of their stories at: (http://www.fws.gov/midwest/justescape/episodes.htm). The hunters are thrilled about being outdoors. For the volunteers and refuge workers it's an exercise in "paying it forward", Ford says. "These guys have some real issues that they have to deal with at times and that's why we do this hunt," he said.
The emotion in Ford's eyes spoke of human compassion, more than what his words let on. It was human nature at its best-people helping people. "This is just a great opportunity for people to get out and enjoy a hunting experience even though they're disabled," added Tom Melius who attended the Rice Lake hunt.
Inclement weather deterred some of the hunters, but others braved the relentless down pour. Community partnerships helped pull off the event despite the weather by providing hot meals, support and by cleaning the mechanics shed that was the venue for the deer camp. Ford worked with Minewawa Sportsman Club and Options, a nonprofit organization that empowers and finds opportunities for people with disabilities, among others. Ron Richardson of Minewawa explains that participants are transported via ATVs and 2-wheel trailers that are rigged to handle wheel chairs. He says that the hunters tell him that this hunt gives them a chance that they never would have had and they can't get over how much fun it is.
Ford tells of an innovative partnership with FLOE International, manufacturer of lifts, docks and trailers, that was made possible via a Challenge Cost Share Grant. He explained to the manufacturer that he had a need for some equipment that would allow a stand to have a pull out area that would raise a hunter 6 feet into the air. The manufacturer first designed a prototype and then implemented several design modifications. The refuge purchased 3 stands as a result.
"Partners are an integral part of disabled hunts in both supplying assistance, expertise, and just the exuberant vitality that they bring," says Mindy Sheets, Assistant Refuge Manager at Desoto NWR which also hosts disabled deer and turkey hunts. "Partners include: Wild Turkey Federation, Wheelin' Sportsmen, Women in the Outdoors, Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Numerous Friends Groups."
Other refuges and wetland management districts around the region have many disabled access areas to view and hunt wildlife at various times throughout the year. Rice Lake, Sherburne, Glacial Ridge, Horicon, DeSoto, Ottawa, Swan Lake NWRs and Fergus Falls, Detroit Lakes, Litchfield wetland management districts (WMD) all have either played host for disabled hunts or feature disabled access areas, blinds and trails.
The disabled hunts are helping people enjoy personal fulfillment and satisfaction. John Benson Office Assistant at the Swan Lake NWR in Sumner, Mo. says that their popular disabled hunt is limited to 20 people in wheel chairs. People in wheelchairs are given priority because hunters with prosthetics can get around easier in the woods than those in wheel chairs. He estimates that the 15-year program has helped between 150-300 hunters and their families. "The volunteers, what they like to do every year is to come out and help those who can't get around as well as the rest of us," he said. Benson says the hunters enjoy it so much that he wouldn't mind it if they were to let 50 people go on the hunt, but they are limited by budget.
By and large the Midwest Region is doing its part to assure that all hunters are able to enjoy recreational activity on the Service lands. While some harvest deer, it is clearly the deer camp experience that most take away. It's a mutual exchange. It's both at once the opportunity to be given the chance and to give a chance, that takes center stage. It's the exhibition of humanity and compassion that resonates and rises above to make a statement. "Hunters are exuberant when they come to a refuge hunt. They do not care if they harvest an animal. Just to be out and hunting and feeling normal brings them such joy. Many of these hunters have not been able to be out and doing things they used to do. So these opportunities are very important to them," says Sheets.