Hunting Camp Muley

By Chris Clasby

It was still midmorning and well beyond first shooting light when we reached a dead end on the two-track and turned around to descend the quarter-mile back downhill to the main logging road. The first hour of light was spent near a shaded snarl of fallen trees where we hoped to find elk feeding on the witches' hair on downed trees or in one of the clearings within view. Neither happened, so we had traversed up the logging road a mile or so until discovering the two-track, which appeared to be the timber company's most recent foray into uncut country.

This was, of course, primarily a deer and elk hunting expedition but had assumed undertones of much more. My last trip in the area was 20-some years prior and I had been in my own saddle, atop my old rope horse, and hunting from my current companion Dan's horse camp. I had made a few trips into that camp as a young teen, nearly beside myself with excitement while planning the trips and savoring every second while living them.

On this day, Dan and I found ourselves, while driving to the area and now moving slowly up the logging road, watching intently but stopping regularly to remember particular scenarios in different locations. One location were he'd caped a friend's first 6 x 6 bull in deep snow where it fell, another where Dan had shot a nice mature muley literally crawling away as we crested a hill above camp, and another when we walked within spitting distance of a black bear sow while stalking elk thick in lodgepole. We recalled another where my boot fell off my foot in the stirrup in darkness without me knowing since my feet were so cold! We laughed quietly, reminding each other that we were hunting after all.

There'd been many changes since we'd last hunted here together, but not because we hadn't tried getting here. Logging had occurred, timber rights had changed hands, the lumber mills that processed the timber now sat idle, and many who'd worked in them were unemployed or had moved on. I had personally experienced changes, including a truck wreck a month out of high school that had broken my neck and left me quadriplegic without arm movement. My rope horse was long gone, and instead of my saddle I now sat in a power wheelchair controlled by sipping and puffing on a plastic straw.

Much, however, remained. I had discovered an adapted rifle mount that attaches to my wheelchair, allowing me to aim by moving a chin joystick and fire by sipping on a plastic straw. Dan's committed friendship and our fervent pursuit of adventure had driven us to tackle unusual obstacles and to relish the height of hunting success. As if just being afield wasn't enough, we'd taken quite a few animals together. Several tagged deer and a few elk affirmed the possibilities beyond expectation.

We had explored different ways to get back to hunting camp but access prevented it. Walk-in hunting (roll-in in my case) was allowed behind the Forest Service gate, but my batteries wouldn't make it far enough. We considered a burro pulling me in a rolling cart, but the inherent risk advised against it. A saddle horse or mule lacked necessary postural support. Dan was a good friend, but physically pulling me up the grade was out of the question. Finally someone with private land beyond the gate had a key and permitted us temporary access. We had driven my van some 11 miles behind the gate, hunted on foot and wheelchair tire, and were now returning to the van. We'd seen several mule deer, including a couple small bucks we had passed, and fresh elk sign but no elk yet.

Just then I spotted several mule deer watching us from the trees in a shaded draw paralleling the two-track. Spinning my chair toward them quickly, I stopped Dan and motioned with my head which brought his binoculars to his eyes as I looked through my scope. The single buck with them, a decent 3 x 3, was quartered toward and looking directly at us.

"It's pretty early in the season, and you only have one tag," Dan whispered. He always says he's reminding me to be patient but I've gotten the feeling he's sick of gutting my animals.

"I want to take him," I replied, prompting Dan to switch my safety to 'off.'

A final chin-joystick adjustment later, I sipped to fire a single shot and watched the buck collapse into the grass at his hooves. The others bounded off as Dan offered me the traditional "fist bump" to my forehead with congratulations at having made a nice shot. We now have a new location to talk about the next time we find a way into this area.

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The personal experience above includes multiple themes we all experience as hunters. Knowledge of quality areas and habitat is key, but accessing them is an ongoing challenge especially for hunters with mobility impairments. Fortunately, many state and several federal agencies have implemented programs and policies to improve access opportunities including some unique to hunters with mobility impairments. A current proposal to the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission (MFWPC) for 2012-2013 regulations change may appear contrary to these efforts but is based on sound principle and resource/wildlife management.

In the mid-1990s, Montana FWP introduced the Permit To Hunt From a Vehicle (PTHFV) to increase hunting opportunities for those with "substantial impairments to mobility." The PTHFV holder must be accompanied by a companion who can assist in dispatching, dressing, and retrieving any game animal wounded or killed. The PTHFV holder is also allowed to shoot "from within a self-propelled or drawn vehicle parked on the shoulder, berm or barrow pit right-of-way of a public road (excluding state or federal highways)." Federal land management agencies such as the BLM and Forest Service also defer to the PTHFV to determine eligibility for access privileges such as driving on designated roads where others can only walk.

Statutory changes to PTHFV eligibility criteria and special regulation privileges in some Hunting Districts (HD's) have occurred over time. In 2001, eligibility was expanded to include anyone who is unable to: "walk, unassisted, 600 yards over rough and broken ground while carrying 15 pounds within one hour AND … unable to handle and maneuver up to 25 pounds." In 2008, elk regulations in some Montana HD's were changed to enable PTHFV holders to harvest antlerless elk with a general elk license whereas non-PTHFV holders cannot. This antlerless elk privilege is in excess of the biologist-recommended antlerless elk harvest quota to sustain the population, which is based on their annual counts.

Two things happened with these changes: 1) Medical professionals have stated the above quoted criterion is vague enough that it is difficult for them to disqualify many reasonably mobile individuals, and 2) The antlerless elk privileges that accompany the PTHFV are reported to have significantly increased the number of PTHFV applications. There are currently 8957 Montana hunters with a PTHFV, 2988 (33.4%) of which have been granted since 2008.

This large number of PTHFV holders in addition to the de facto antlerless elk privilege has also resulted in alleged abuse. Montana FWP employees working in the field report cases in which some PTHFV holders walk long distances over difficult terrain and retrieve animals solo. Many hunters report instances of PTHFV holders with good personal mobility using motorized vehicle access privileges to transport friends to and from hunting areas and to retrieve game where motorized vehicles are otherwise restricted.

The current proposal is directly focused on the PTHFV antlerless elk privilege in some HD's which creates a potential threat to the vitality of our elk populations. Consider, for example, Montana HD 270 in the Bitterroot. The 2011 Deer and Elk regulations (see page 39) for Oct. 22 - Nov. 27 allow those with a general elk license to shoot "Brow-tined Bull Elk" only. "Brow-tined Bull or Antlerless Elk" may be taken by Youth ages 12-15, and by PTHFV holders. However, there are only 20 Antlerless Elk B licenses available by drawing, which again is based upon biologists' recommended harvest quotas.

Considering the 8957 hunters with a PTHFV, if even 5% (or 447) of them hunted in HD 270, and 10% (or 44) of them shot antlerless elk, that is 44 antlerless elk in addition to the 20 Antlerless Elk B licenses already granted through special drawings and the undetermined number taken by young hunters. The possibility of harvesting over 64 antlerless elk in that district - more than three times the recommended quota - could result in a very serious reduction of that elk herd.

Considering survival of our elk populations and reduced incentive for PTHFV abuse, the Blackfoot Access Committee introduced a proposal to the MFWPC that, if adopted, would change PTHFV privileges in a single way: hunters who hold a PTHFV will adhere to the same general regulations by district for taking antlerless elk as hunters who do not hold a PTHFV. This proposal would suspend - in all applicable Hunting Districts – the special privilege granted to hunters with a PTHFV to harvest an antlerless elk with a general elk license. PTHFV hunters could still shoot antlerless elk in areas where hunters without a PTHFV can, and they have the same opportunity to draw an antlerless permit.

Members of the Blackfoot Access Committee, which includes two hunters who are permanently reliant on wheelchairs for all indoor and outdoor mobility, have appeared before the Commissioners three times this year to support this proposal. While ours is a small group, we have sought advice and assistance from the Hellgate Hunters and Anglers (Missoula), the Helena Hunters and Anglers, the (Montana) Statewide Independent Living Council, Montana Wildlife Federation, two physicians and several avid hunters around the state with and without permanent mobility impairments. 

Yes, some opportunity to shoot a cow elk will be minimized, but future hunting will be protected. As one person put it, "We are working to restore respect to the PTHFV program."

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