Outdoorsmen seek access to game lands for disabled hunters




By:Tom Venesky 04/06/2003




Mountain Top resident Charles Engler doesn't let his heart condition, rheumatoid arthritis and other physical ailments prevent him from pursuing his favorite outdoor activity.

Engler, 60, has been hunting since he was 12 and said he thoroughly enjoys his time afield. However, for Engler and other hunters with disabilities, finding access to public land can limit that time.
Engler and his hunting partner, who is bound to a wheelchair, both have disabled hunter permits which allow them to use their vehicle as a blind. But Engler said many state game land roads in Luzerne County don't offer access for disabled hunters, making it difficult for him and his partner to get into the woods.
"This past hunting season the snow was too deep for us to walk through, much less try to get a wheelchair into the woods," Engler said. "The roads are gated and on many of them he can't even get his wheelchair around the gate."
According to Pennsylvania Game Commission information, there are a total of 31 game land roads in the Northeast Region that are open to everyone during parts of hunting season.
In Luzerne County, game lands 91 and 207 have roads that are open.
Joe Wenzel, education supervisor for the PGC's Northeast Region, acknowledged that there are more roads open to disabled permit holders using an ATV than there are for those specifically with a permit to use a vehicle as a blind.
"There are nine in the state and one in the Northeast Region," he said. "All the other roads are open to all hunters, including disabled, and they provide a lot of opportunity also."
However, Wenzel added that the disabled hunters using their vehicle as a blind have to share the road with all other hunters.
Engler said this could present a problem.
"Some of the roads are narrow and if you're sitting in your vehicle you can't get off the road if a car is going by," he said.
According to PGC regulations, a permitted disabled hunter using a vehicle as a blind must have the vehicle at a complete stop with the motor turned off.
"The permit allows them to drive to a location, pull in and hunt from the car," Wenzel explained. "They can't road hunt."
Engler said he has found accessible hunting locations through farmers who give him permission to drive and park on their property.
But he added that not every disabled hunter has the same opportunity. Engler said he understands that PGC personnel can't be at every location all the time to open and close the access gates, but even a few days during the prime seasons would help.
"I appreciate the handicapped license, but your hunting is still restricted," he said. "We pay as much as everyone else but we can't access all the game lands.
"If they just give us one or two days that the handicapped can have access to all the game lands that would be fine to make some opportunities for disabled hunters."
Paul Mahon, who serves as a commissioner for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, is also a disabled hunter who has worked for years to create new access.
He said he'd like to see the gates on all game lands made accessible to disabled hunters using ATV's. Mahon admitted that making all the roads open for disabled hunters using a vehicle would be difficult because many of the roads are narrow or unsafe.
But he added state forest roads are open for disabled hunters to hunt from their vehicle.
"The game lands are a different story because they're afraid people would take advantage of it like they do handicapped parking," Mahon explained. "On the other hand, every wildlife conservation officer I meet says they aren't having any problems.
"It's time they cut all the gates and make every one accessible for the disabled."
Wenzel said maintenance, manpower and budget issues come into play when opening a road. He added it's imperative that vehicles can travel safely on a road before it's opened. Also, Wenzel said impacts on wildlife and habitat have to be considered before a road is opened.
"The agency is continually looking at other possible opportunities as they become available," Wenzel said.
Engler contacted state Rep. George Hasay to express his concerns. Hasay agreed with Engler on the access issue and added there needs to be changes in the issuing of disabled permits. "I'd like to see more handicapped accessible hunting and a change in the policy in how the PGC issues disabled permits," he said.
Hasay added that he's had several hunters in his district with ailments such as a heart condition or severe asthma, who were turned down for permits.
There is a bill (HB 235) in the state House Game and Fisheries committee that would switch the issuance of the permits out of the hands of wildlife conservation officer's and give it to the legislature.
"It's being amended in committee and I'm doing what I can to move it along," Hasay said. "As these hunters get older, they can't walk as far. It should be easier for the disabled, with proper documentation, to obtain these permits."

tvenesky@citizensvoice

©The Citizens Voice 2003




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