HIBBING — Deer hunting is a Midwest tradition that many people with disabilities are unable to enjoy due to the hurdle of inaccessibility. Transportation issues or a lack of physical support in maneuvering through a field or trail system are common barriers that Don Brunette, executive director at Access North Center for Independent Living in Hibbing, as seen all too often throughout the region.
During a recent interview, Brunette told the Hibbing Daily Tribune that every hunting season there are people who are left behind as their loved ones gather at their cabins and hunting shacks.
“We are a disabled population more than people ever realize,” Brunette said.
Jeff Christian of Pengilly, a six-year board member at Access North, explained that he and Brunette attended an accessible deer hunt last year at the Rydell National Wildlife Refuge, set near the Minnesota-North Dakota border. Staff from the social services organization called Options Resource Center for Independent Living in East Grand Forks, Minn., and volunteers supported 20 people with disabilities as they navigated the fields and processed their deer.
Brunette said the group effort allowed participants to regain access to “the great culture of Minnesota deer hunting which is such an important thing for everybody.” He continued, “We wondered ‘What is happening in the north here?’ and there really wasn’t anything comparable. That’s when Jeff and I started brainstorming.”
Brunette and Christian would eventually reach out to the state Department of Natural Resources’ Parks and Trails Division. Together, they found a partner in Tony Lenoch, a park manager at the DNR, who was sold on the idea and helped them collaborate with staff at McCarthy Beach State Park who agreed to let Access North use their land for an accessible hunt this fall.
“The hunt meets two of their goals: they want to increase accessible use of the park and have the park be welcoming to people of all abilities,” Brunette said. “The state parks also have a problem in managing the deer herds and need a management strategy. So a hunt like this helps with that.” Christian concurred: “The overpopulation of the deer up there are destroying the vegetation in the park.”
Brunette said this will be the first hunt of its kind in northeastern Minnesota and staff at Access North are now taking down names for anyone with a disability who is interested in the event, which is scheduled for the end of October.
The two-day event is set to include a half-day afternoon hunt on Friday, Oct. 25, and a full-day hunt on Saturday, Oct. 26. The Side Lake Community Center will be considered “base camp” and volunteers will be on-site to transport hunters to their designated deer blinds. As this is the first year, they will be capping the number of participants at 10 hunters.
“This will be an annual event, and hopefully as we build and get more access equipment, volunteers and resources, we’ll be able to support more hunters in the field,” Brunette said.
Eligible hunters must have a documented disability. Christian added, “It doesn’t matter what their disability is, we should be able to accommodate just about anybody. There should be no limitations, so people don't have to worry that their disability is too severe.” He continued, “And we’re hoping in the years to come we can reach a goal of 20 hunters, but we’ll start with something manageable.”
Those interested should also have a valid hunting license and their own legal weapon for taking deer, be it a bow, shotgun or rifle. After arriving, participants will be transported by ATV, side-by-side or by transportation cart to their hunting area and volunteers with walkie talkies will remain with each hunter throughout the entire experience to ensure safety and support needs are met. Then if a doe or buck is taken, volunteers will pitch in to help with that as well.
“We can field dress the deer if they want, quarter it, cut it into pieces or take it to a processor,” Christian said. “We can do as much as they want.”
Brunette added, “We’ll also be serving several meals and providing a place for people to gather and, of course, share their wonderful hunting stories.” He also noted that several hunting locations will be in the camping area of McCarthy Beach State Park, which means they will need at least two to three crossbow hunters. That also happens to be an area with heavy deer traffic.
Brunette and Christian have been working closely with the DNR in scouting out the hunting locations. Most of the spots will be just off of established roads and trails, making them easily accessible.
“For people who have loved the culture and engaged in hunting their entire life and then acquired a spinal cord injury or some kind of disabling disease and are not able to access the sport or part of that culture anymore… well, this is something that allows people to be able to participate in that strong Minnesota tradition again,” Brunette said.
However, the event is going to take a lot of assistance to pull off. Brunette estimated that they’ll need 35 people to help with transportation, meal preparation and for supporting people in the field, handling and processing, registration and clean up. Monetary donations are also vital to help purchase food, beverage and equipment. And donated hunting equipment is a must.
“We want to encourage people to reach out to ask how they can get involved with this great event,” Brunette said. “We need donations that can help us acquire deer blinds, walkie talkies, camp chairs, coolers, all of the equipment and food costs. We need some great community support to pull this all together.”
The Red Rock Riders ATV Club recently hosted an annual ride where a portion of the proceeds were donated to the hunt, he said. Northern Traxx ATV Club donated to the cause and staff at Access North hope others will continue to consider doing the same so they can acquire their own equipment.
Anyone who would like to be placed on the waiting list to receive an application in August may contact Patty at 218-262-6675.