Investing in a future for disabled hunters

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As Eaglenest Creek flows through the foothills of Heart Mountain, rays of sunlight dance in the shallow water, exposing German browns. Hidden in shadowy holes, the trout only venture out in a flash for the promise of a meal.

On shore, tracks from deer, elk, pronghorn and an occasional grizzly have been pressed in rich mud between rocks crudely polished over millennia by the rush of snow melt from surrounding peaks. Golden eagles and hawks patrol the skies above.

Grants, donations and a ton of volunteer work from the Wyoming Disabled Hunters and others have helped shore up the creek’s eroding banks. The work is more than just needed restoration: It’s an investment in the future of hunters, who might not be able to enjoy it without a helping hand.

This section of Eaglenest Creek winds through The Nature Conservancy Heart Mountain Ranch Preserve, which has given hunting access to Wyoming Disabled Hunters over the years.

“To help people experience the great things in life and nature and to assist individuals in doing something that they thought they wouldn’t be able to do again, it’s an awesome thing to be a part of,” said Brian Peters, who manages the ranch with his wife Carrie.

The property is teeming with migrating wildlife, but with improvements to the Eagle-nest Creek drainage, more species may make the place their home, ultimately creating better success for the hunters.

Wyoming Disabled Hunters President Corey McGregor originally thought the work might be a way to get the disabled out in the wild during the summer or to involve those not into hunting. But due to the soggy, difficult terrain, the group decided it was best to hire professionals in the final year of a grant, provided by the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust.

The group hired The Watershed Restoration Group, a hardcore group of landscape professionals used to working in nasty conditions.

“We’ve learned to embrace the crust,” said Sam Snyder, an employee of the team explaining how the traveling workers live through the daily job in the muck.

The hard work they perform is similar to their daily work, but the feeling they get from working to help disabled hunters made the project special for the workers, said Brooks Priest, project manager for the restoration crew.

“Most people think we’re just grunt laborers because we work seasonally. But it’s mostly mental. You’ve got to have a head to be a tree planter,” Priest said. “Knowing what we’re doing here is a good feeling.”

Run completely by volunteers, Wyoming Disabled Hunters is now celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Tenth anniversaries aren’t associated with materials of romantic connotations; traditionally, the milestone is celebrated with aluminum or tin rather than gold or diamonds, but those metals are durable and long-lasting — appropriate attributes as Wyoming Disabled Hunters invests in a long future of service.

McGregor, who’s been president of the group since its inception, has never let anything get between him and his passion for hunting.

On a Memorial Day some years ago, McGregor missed a turn near his home in Clark and crashed. McGregor was badly hurt — his spinal cord was severed just above his waist. In an instant, much of his life changed — but not his passion for outdoor sports. With encouragement and help from family, he planned his next hunt.

“We all have barriers we run across,” McGregor said. “We didn’t know what to expect that first hunt, but we were determined to make it work.”

He didn’t miss a single season. Just a few months after the tragic accident, McGregor harvested a handsome bull elk alongside his father, Bill McGregor of Clark. They had to stick closer to the road than they were accustomed, but they managed a successful hunt.

With success came inspiration.

Attempts at fall harvests are different now. McGregor hunts on horseback, training his horse to lay down so he can climb on. That allows him to make his way to the isolated areas where he discovered his love for the outdoors.

Before Bill passed in 2014, he was able to watch his son turn his passion for hunting into Wyoming Disabled Hunters, an organization committed to helping others like himself.

“We started with just two hunters,” McGregor said.

Pat Winlow got involved with the group because her son, Jake, was disabled due to injuries sustained in an auto accident. Watching her son get an opportunity to hunt again touched Winlow, leading her to volunteer. She’s now the group’s secretary, overseeing 34 hunts for disabled hunters in this, the group’s first big anniversary.

“The hunters are so happy and thankful. Realizing the resiliency of the human spirit — it’s inspiring to be involved,” Winlow said.

The team from The Watershed Restoration Group recently planted hundreds of shrubs, bushes and trees along the creek. Over the life of the years-long state grant, volunteers have also installed man-made beaver dams. Jerry Altermatt, a local terrestrial habitat biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and a volunteer for the group, said he’d like to bring in beavers to help build natural pools in the drainage.

Many have come together to help with funding. Beyond the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust, help has come from The Nature Conservancy, Bowhunters of Wyoming, Wyoming Outdoorsmen and the Wyoming Game Wardens Association; the bulk of the Wyoming Disabled Hunters’ annual revenue comes from fundraising.

“The Wyoming Disabled Hunters wanted to give back by improving the habitat,” Altermatt said.

This year, Wyoming Game and Fish commissioner David Rael, vice president of the commission and a Cowley resident, gave the group his commissioner’s tag for a raffle. The tag allows the owner to hunt elk, deer or antelope during the season of their choice and anywhere in the state.

“It’s a highly sought-after tag,” McGregor said.

They’re offering 300 chances at the tag. The opportunity to buy a raffle ticket expires May 31. Unfortunately, sales aren’t going as hoped.

“We’ve only sold about 100 tickets so far,” McGregor said.

The odds of winning this “lottery” ticket are pretty high and the money it will raise is vitally important to the group. Equally vital are volunteers. There were 92 disabled hunters who applied for a chance to go on a hunt, but the group only has the manpower to help about a third of them, Winlow said.

Volunteers like Winlow are giving many hunters with varying disabilities a chance to share in the camaraderie and soul-healing adventures afield.

“About 40 to 45 percent of our hunters are veterans,” Winlow said.

Funds raised by the group help pay for the hunts and everything from transportation to food and lodging. Many of the hunters are on limited incomes, Winlow said.

McGregor would love to wake up one day and be able to walk, but he’s grateful for how his life has turned out. He still celebrates Memorial Day, despite the memories it brings. But the Wyoming Disabled Hunters’ 10th anniversary means more to him.

“The things I’ve been able to do, the people I’ve met, I wouldn’t have changed a thing,” he said.

To buy a raffle ticket or volunteer to help, visit www.wyomingdisabledhunters.org online or @WyomingDisabledHunters on Facebook.

Courtesy photo

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