Reflections on assisted hunting
A commentary by Ed Culhane, Department of Natural Resources West Central Region public affairs manager.
Deer hunts for the disabled were held across Wisconsin week before last, and as always they were wildly successful.
The numbers are impressive - 93 sponsors this year, individuals and groups, and 75,000 acres enrolled. It grows each year.
There is no count of disabled hunters, as these records are not required, but 437 made their way into the books anyway and the actual number is certainly much higher.
Numbers, though, are the least important part of this story. Something happens at these hunts that sets them apart. It's not easy to define, but it's easy to see and feel if you're around one, and to hear - because of the laughter.
Everyone at these events, hunters and volunteers alike, is there because on that given day there isn't any other place they'd rather be.
The largest deer hunt for disabled hunters in Wisconsin takes place near Willard in Clark County where as many as 97 property owners make more than 11,000 acres of prime hunting lands available to 60 to 70 disabled hunters each autumn.
Organizer Dale Petkovsek, a quadriplegic since a teen-age car crash in 1978, said landowners first saw the program as an additional opportunity to trim an overly large deer herd in farm country.
It's been going for 14 years now, with headquarters at Dale's North Mound Tavern. Local hunters, including landowners, act as guides and assistants and just about everyone who can comes back year after year.
"Some deep relationships have formed," Petkovsek said.
It's a giant logistical undertaking. That big jovial guy peeling off strips of raffle tickets at the Saturday night banquet - he's a local businessman. You couldn't pay him to stay away.
Those guys out back, behind the giant event tent, skinning deer and wrapping venison for the hunters - one of them is a retired forester and deputy warden, Richard Chose, and another is his friend, Steve Bushman. They and the others have a regular comedy routine going.
"We're like arthritis," Bushman said. "We keep coming back…and this way, I keep good and practiced in case I ever shoot one of my own."
A third skinner is Gary Johnson. It was his idea years ago to set up the deer processing operation. He remembers one small girl who was severely disabled. She had a thrilling hunt, and then she blew him right away with her electric smile. It wasn't even fair.
"Just seeing that joy on her face…I'll be back every year."
The tavern was packed and so was the big event tent outside. There was a gargantuan quantity of food. Inside the tent, Glen Robinson was at a table with his wife, Estelle. Robinson has no legs. He'd seen four deer that day and he shot one of them. He's hunted here from the beginning, other than a few years when his children were producing grandchildren and he was busy looking after them.
"This is a lot of fun," he said. "There's always someone to visit with when you're not hunting."
Kris Belling, a regional wildlife supervisor with the state Department of Natural Resources, presented Dale, and his sister, Mary, with the DNR West Central Region Natural Resources Award at the banquet this year.
Dale and Mary were nominated by conservation warden Adam Hanna and wildlife technician Scott Krultz, another volunteer.
Dale, impatient with the applause, refused to take any credit and said the wooden plaque belonged "to everyone in this tent."
Seven days later, Xcel Energy and the Indianhead Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, as part of the organization's Wheelin' Sportsman program, sponsored a deer hunt for the disabled on Xcel's 4,300-acre, undeveloped Tyrone property along the lower Chippewa River in Dunn County. Xcel has been lauded by environmentalists for restoring native habitat on the vast property.
There were seven hunters and seven volunteer "mentors," although "assistants" would be a better word. These hunters don't need mentoring. They just need a little help getting into the field, and should they bag a deer, someone to field dress it and drag it.
Organizers Dave Mahlke, a regional federation official, and Matt McFarlane, Xcel's property manager, had a big field tent set up and a roaring fire to beat back the early morning rain.
The hunters were glad to be out on this beautiful land, despite the rain.
Mitch Hoyt, who's been in a wheelchair since part of a friend's tree stand collapsed years ago, said he was grateful for the invitation but wondered, with a grin, if it was okay for him to be there.
"My electric company is WPS," he said.
There were T-shirts and caps to distribute and, of course, lots of food to eat and snacks to pack, per Wisconsin code.
The hunters spent the rest of the long day in the field, widely separated on the huge property, and it rained on their blinds all afternoon and into the evening. A much needed rain, if not conducive to hunting. Deer don't like to move much in an all-day soaker. It defeats their sense of smell.
Among the volunteers were a DNR communicator and Dave Mahlke's son, who shares his name. The younger Mahlke, 29, suffered a traumatic brain injury serving his country in Iraq. He'd qualify for a disabled tag but he's fighting his way back and chose instead to volunteer.
"I learned what it takes to be a wounded sportsman, the courage involved, the never-say-die attitude," his father said that morning.
A roaring campfire awaited our return from the field, and there was more food and the hunters told their stories, and as this was an inaugural effort, there were suggestions for future hunts. And per Wisconsin code, there was laughter.
We'll be back next year. You can count on it.
For information on Wisconsin's many opportunities for disabled people who love the outdoors, and opportunities to volunteer, visit http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/openoutdoors/.