Providing better opportunities for hunters with disabilities

Robbie Ivey, a boy in a wheelchair in the woods, smiling, wearing orange vest, with a bear he took.

Jan. 15, 2015

If you ask Michigan conservation officer Dave Painter, he'll tell you his relationship with his sometimes hunting partner Robbie Ivey was pretty unlikely.

Painter, who is assigned to Iron County in the western Upper Peninsula, was having processed photos he'd recently taken of a black bear when he got a phone call about a law-enforcement situation. He asked the attendant to look out for his photos. He'd be back.

When he returned, Carrie Ivey, who worked at the processor, told Painter that she couldn't help noticing the pictures and asked if he might spare a photo for her son, who had his room decorated with wildlife art. During the ensuing conversation, Ivey - who'd lost her volunteer firefighter husband to a car accident while he was responding to an emergency - informed Painter that her 12-year-old youngster had a physical disability. Painter offered to take him hunting sometime.

Jerry Rose, disabled man with crutches, in woods with rifle and buck he shot at Freedom Hunt.The youngster, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, was all about it.

Painter is one of 189 men and women who serve as Michigan conservation officers and one of roughly 1,300 full-time employees in the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Like Painter, many of these employees have a passion for the outdoors and a strong desire to serve people with disabilities. That service takes the form of ad hoc volunteer efforts like Painter's, and a number of programs aimed specifically at people with disabilities, including programs such as Michigan Operation Freedom Outdoors, which serves many veterans.

After his initial discussion with Carrie Ivey, Painter contacted some members of the Escanaba chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. The chapter has a program called Wheeling Sportsmen designed to aid the non-ambulatory. Painter set up a spring hunt and the club gave him access to a breath-activated piece of equipment, with a camera on a scope, which allows hunters without the use of their hands to aim and shoot a firearm.

Robbie harvested a "nice tom," Painter recounted. That outing was only the beginning

"We've kind of turned into hunting buddies," said Painter, who has helped Robbie collect three bears, three deer and two turkeys now. "He's a neat kid

Brik Jacobs, boy in wheelchair, with DNR's Joe Robison in snowy field with turkey boy harvested.Joe Robison, a DNR wildlife biologist supervisor in southeast Michigan, has developed a similar relationship with 17-year-old Brik Jacobs, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and now uses a wheelchair. Robison has taken Brik on successful elk (at a game preserve) and turkey hunts and on a waterfowl hunt that didn't result in any game in the bag, "but he had fun," Robison said.

Robison has access to adaptive equipment through the Passing Along The Heritage Foundation (PATH) - a nonprofit organization begun by former Natural Resources Commissioner Bob Garner and Garner's buddy, Bob Knoop - that helps persons with disabilities participate in outdoor recreation. PATH has created a guide-training program to make sure volunteers who are taking hunters into the field have basic emergency health-care knowledge (such as CPR) and the ability to accommodate hunters with special needs.

"Every year we take a few individuals - accident victims, stroke victims or others with disabilities - hunting for turkey, deer or elk," Robison said. "It's pretty rewarding helping out individuals like that, getting them out to enjoy the things that we all love to do."

The PATH Foundation partners with numerous organizations, such as Michigan Operation Freedom Outdoors, to create more opportunities for more folks.

Ed Maciejewski, man in off-road wheelchair, in woods with rifle and deer hanging in background.The Operation Freedom Outdoors program is a partnership that includes the DNR, Zero Day, the Eisenhower Foundation and other groups. Centered around the Sharonville State Game Area, Operation Freedom Outdoors provides guide services and specialized equipment to individuals with disabilities - including many disabled veterans - so they can experience opportunities similar to those of able-bodied hunters.

This year, Operation Freedom Outdoors took a few hunters out during the two-day Liberty Hunt in September. The Liberty Hunt is open to 100-percent disabled veterans, those who have been issued a permit by the DNR to hunt from a standing vehicle or use a laser-sighting devise, or those who are legally blind. The group also enabled 15 hunters to go afield during the four-day Independence Hunt in October.

"We had to hold a lottery," said the organization's Tom Jones, who coordinates events for disabled vets. "We had more folks who wanted to come than we could accommodate."

Jones said the group has use of three permanent 8-foot-by-8-foot blinds that are easily accessible and five track chairs for those with severe mobility impairments. More of both will be available next year.

"The track chairs are pretty much tanks," Jones said. "They have tank treads and with a full charge they're good for 10 miles. It's an amazing piece of equipment, comfortable, and the terrain is not an issue."

Robbie Ivey, boy in wheelchair in woods, with doe he shot, Wildlife Unlimited trailer in background.Although the special hunting seasons are finished for the year Jones will continue to take hunters on an individual basis and has even taken folks out just to take photographs.

"We're reconnecting people with the outdoors for the therapeutic value of it and letting them know they can still pursue those opportunities," Jones said.

This year, Operation Freedom Outdoors was able to put Robert Ludwick, Jr, a 42-year-old Navy vet with a number of debilitating injuries on a hunt, accompanied by his 11-year-old son. Ludwick wound up taking a nine-point buck. "A very big one at that," Ludwick said. "I think what Operation Freedom Outdoors has going on is needed. It's spot on."

And this isn't the only military-related program enabling disabled folks to go hunting. For years, the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs has provided hunting opportunities for those with disabilities at Fort Custer Training Center, a 7,500-acre Michigan National Guard base not far from Battle Creek.

Jonathon Edgerly, a natural resources analyst with Military and Veterans Affairs, said, "We've been offering opportunities for disabled hunters at the fort for 10-plus years now, providing blinds and people to sit with them

But Edgerly has focused on "the Freedom Hunt," which is held during the Independence Hunt season in mid-October and is open to the same hunters who are eligible for the Liberty Hunt

"We hunt on about 3,000 acres," Edgerly said. "The whole event happens at the fort - housing, mess hall and hunting." Meanwhile, Edgerly said the fort continues to host hunters with disabilities during the regular seasons - deer and turkey - with a handful of people participating

There are more opportunities than just these. The DNR has accessible hunting blinds for those with disabilities at a number of game areas, including Maple River and at the Rifle River State Recreation Area. The DNR's new GEMS - Grouse Enhanced Management Systems - are designed for hunters who are maybe not as mobile as they once were, but can manage a walking path.

No one is guaranteeing it will be easy, but thanks to the efforts of the DNR, its employees and plenty of volunteers and dedicated partners, people with disabilities who want to hunt are getting more opportunities than before.

Learn more about the state's variety of hunting seasons on the DNR website