Hunting might not seem possible for those who use wheelchairs, visually impaired or disabled in other ways, but two Bayfield volunteers are working to change that.
Brad Harper and Cole Davis began volunteering in 2016 with Outdoor Buddies, a nonprofit that arranges fishing and hunting excursions for people with disabilities around Colorado. In Southwest Colorado, they’re a key link among early mornings, big game and those who thought hunting was no longer possible.
“For me, it’s leveraging something I enjoy ... and using it for something much bigger than myself,” said Brad Harper, an intensive care nurse at Mercy Regional Medical Center.
Outdoor Buddies, the only organization in Colorado that focuses on hunters with disabilities and at-risk youths, connects the two volunteers with people who have signed up for trips. Outdoor Buddies does not arrange trophy hunting excursions.
Harper and Davis typically take the hunter out for two mornings and two evenings to do big-game hunts over the course of a weekend.
Harper has a connection to people with disabilities because of his brother, who was born quadriplegic. As kids, Harper would take his brother hunting – by carrying him on his back – to hunt pronghorns near Colorado Springs.
Now, Harper has a greater level of comfort finding accommodations and helping people with their needs, he said.
“We’re just providing hunting opportunities to people who otherwise couldn’t do it themselves,” he said.
The Bayfield group provides a 1-to-1 ratio between the “able-buddies” and the “handi-buddies.”
So far, they’ve been able to help people who rely on prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs for mobility and those who have sight or hearing impairments.
For Dan Lichtenwalner of Denver, whose leg had to be amputated after a tree-felling accident, the program has connected him with lifelong friends.
“Nature and wildlife is my passion. Being able to do this stuff is very important to me,” Lichtenwalner said. “I’m more mobile than most. ... I couldn’t imagine not being able to be mobile and active.”
One hunter was blind and partially deaf, said Davis, who works at Honnen Equipment in Durango. The volunteers worked out signals with the hunter to be able to communicate quietly, and they successfully got a deer.
“It’s for any and all kinds of needs,” Davis said.
The team wants to grow the program, find more volunteers and even team up with other adaptive sports groups in the county. The biggest challenge: finding places to hunt.
The easiest way to provide accommodations for people with disabilities is to hunt on private land. They currently have 300 acres between two properties in the Pine River Valley that they can use for deer hunting.
“What I’ve noticed ... they think they have to somehow get some kind of private landowner hunting tag. That’s not true. We get hunters that have a tag in hand for this (area),” Davis said. “It’s more so just them trusting us on their land. ... It’s our responsibility that we’re set up in safe areas for us to shoot.”
Hunters can access big-game tags through the Colorado Parks and Wildlife big-game mobility-impaired hunting license program or through the general tag selection process. They might also need a CPW permit to shoot from a vehicle, Davis said.
About 500 people with disabilities are registered with the CPW and are on the list for licenses. Since the program started in 2001, 2,318 big-game licenses have been distributed, including 178 in 2020, said Joe Lewandowski, CPW spokesman.
“Landowners just need the land with animals and the willingness to let someone like us come in and use it carefully,” Davis said.