Disabled hunters find Wyoming welcoming
Meeteetse – Whether it’s individual ranchers, non-profit organizations or combinations of the two playing host, disabled hunters are met with unmatched hospitality in Wyoming.
“We have a certain area where you can hunt and are guaranteed an elk, because the elk are as consistent as they can be there. I asked a friend of ours if he thought we could get guys in wheel chairs to that spot, and he suggested we build a blind,” says rancher Merlyn Ballinger. The blind turned out to be a first-rate, nearly soundproof, heated blind where hunters can even spend the night. The hunters who come to Ballinger’s ranch are generally confined to a wheel chair and oftentimes legally blind. Disabled hunters visiting the ranch have harvested 30 elk since the Ballingers first began the effort in 1998.
“We were inspired by a young man in Powell who is in a wheel chair, but is very active. That’s what got me to thinking about it originally. His dad would take him up there to hunt, and plunk him down in a snowdrift, but the snow was so deep, he couldn’t see the elk. Now with the blind, he’s harvested an elk there seven years in a row. He’s a real ethical hunter, and sometimes he even spends the night in the blind,” comments Ballinger.
“It’s a fun program, and real rewarding,” Merlyn adds. Volunteer guides take the hunters, and Merlyn and Virginia Ballinger provide the land, the hunting blind and the elk. “We don’t try to make money off of the hunts, we just like to cover our expenses if possible.”
Dennis and Lori Baxter, Ed and Amy Baxter, and their families have been taking disabled people hunting for the past five years near Cody, Jackson and Jeffrey City. One of their disabled hunters harvested a buffalo that is currently ranked the #5 Boone and Crockett buffalo.
“The people we take are all 21 years and older, and they have different levels of physical and mental disability, and some have brain injuries,” says Dennis Baxter. “Lori and I have five handicapped people who live in our home. We are certified to care for them; even my kids are certified and help out. Several of the people who stay with us want to hunt but have never had the opportunity, so we take them.” The Baxters are in search of additional landowners willing to allow them access to hunt.
“The president of the Outdoor Dream Foundation (ODF) contacted me six years ago, and asked if I’d be interested in taking a boy from Indiana on an elk hunt,” says outfitter and rancher Duaine Hagen. “That was that same year the Wyoming legislature set aside licenses just for youth with life threatening illnesses or disabilities. I took the boy on a hunt and it got me hooked. It was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I’ve continued to do it every year since. Last year we took four kids out. It’s been an absolute wonderful experience.”
The youth Duaine Hagen and his wife, Sheila, take hunting are kids that have life-threatening or serious illness. “The ODF usually covers the transportation costs, a gun manufacturer provides rifles, sporting goods stores provide the clothing, and we provide guides and take them on a hunt. The last few years we’ve also done summer trips, and usually the whole family comes,” comments Hagen.
“We take the kids and their families on horse back rides, let them go fishing, go into Yellowstone Park and go to the museum. We really encourage them to spend the whole week. When they hunt it’s not about the kill. This is their wish, their dream, to go on a hunt or summer trip, and we are able to provide and share that experience. It’s terrific. It’s my way to give back,” shares Hagen.
For the past 24 years Gary and Jane Stearns have been coordinating the Helluva Hunt for 15 disabled individuals annually.
“During the 1980s wildlife writer Jim Zumbo contacted my wife and me. We were outfitting at the time. Jim had received a letter from a man who used to be an avid hunter, but was then disabled, and got enjoyment by reading Jim’s hunting articles. Jim asked if we could do something to help. I said I didn’t know, but didn’t see why not,” says Gary Stearns.
The Stearns and other became enthused, and formed Helluva Hunt, a non-profit organization, and then started raising funds.
“In 1985 we had our first hunt, and the hunters had 100 percent success, even though nearly everything that could go against us did. We’ve maintained the same format from the beginning, and the whole community of Douglas and Converse County has always been behind us.”
Helluva Hunt receives about 60 applications a year from disabled individuals, and from those the Board selects 15 to come to Converse County for an antelope hunt. “The most difficult part is selecting just 15 people,” Stearns comments. “They have to provide their own transportation to and from the hunt, but all other expenses are covered once they are here.”
The participants will arrive this fall on Sept. 29, and the event starts on Sept. 30. Each of the 15 participants receives an antelope hunting license and a Disabled Hunter’s Permit, which makes it legal for disabled individuals to shoot from a vehicle, as several of the participants are in wheel chairs, and mobility is limited. “They have to abide by the rules and regulations,” says Stearns, “they can’t shoot from road, etc.”
Wyoming passed additional legislation a few years ago to allow for a Disabled Hunter’s Companion Card. This allows a disabled hunter to have a licensed companion to hunt with, in the event their first shot only wounds the animal, and they are not physically able to follow the animal over the terrain or into the brush, the companion is licensed to dispatch the animal legally.
“The guides come from all over the country and nobody gets paid anything,” adds Stearns. “They travel thousands of miles just to be here to help. It’s a family, and most of our guides have at lest 15–18 years experience with us. But, the guides have to be more than just experienced; they have to have compassion and patience, because it takes a little longer to get on the game. Most of the hunters are very capable, they just need a little assistance. They are here for only three days, and we want to make it the time of their life. The purpose is not to go kill a big antelope, the purpose is to get people out doing the things they used to do, and want to do.”
For more information, contact Merlyn and Virginia Ballinger at 307-754-5475, the Baxters at Northern Developmental Disability Service Providers at 307-587-3571, Duaine Hagen at 307-868-2140 or visit the Outdoor Dream Foundation at www.outdoordream.org. Additional information on Helluva Hunt can be obtained by calling the Stearns at 307-358-6580. Echo Renner, based in Meeteetse, is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup.