Minnesota DNR works with advocacy groups to help those with disabilities hunt

The fresh deer tracks near the entrance gate at the Becklin Homestead Wildlife Management Area are a sure sign of opportunity for hunters such as Richard Dibble.

"I’m very anxious for today," said Dibble as he shuffled with the aid of his cane across one of Becklin Homestead’s open spaces. He’s traditionally hunted near McGregor, Minnesota for more than 20 years.

"I’ve been hunting up there all this time by myself before my accident," Dibble reflected.

Dibble’s search for a new and accessible hunting spot actually began with a spot on a road in 2018.

"I hit an icy spot and I put my truck into the retaining wall," said Dibble. The collision with the wall left him uninjured, but as he stepped out of the cab, it was the secondary collision with another driver that could have taken his life.

"That’s the last thing I remember, because I guess whoever was driving lost control and hit my truck. My truck hit me and bounced me out on the highway, and I got run over about five times," he explained. 

Five years later, he’s back to hunting, but this time with six other hunters all battling their own disabilities.

"We need help to get out and do some of these outdoor things," said Steve Scheunemann of Capable Partners, a Minnesota nonprofit that helps those with physical challenges get into the woods to participate in adaptive outdoor sports.

"I was injured in a downhill skiing accident 30 years ago," said Scheunemann who now uses a wheelchair for mobility. "It’s enabled me to get out into the outdoors, hunting and fishing and different outings."

Capable Partners has more than 280 members who pay annual dues of $25 to participate in hunting and fishing events the group sponsors. Scheunemann says they offer a hardship waiver for those who can’t afford the fee. The biggest participation is during the waterfowl season, but the deer season is a big attraction too.

"I would imagine 60-70 deer hunters are getting out, so it’s amazing," said Scheunemann.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has more than 1.3 million acres of wildlife management areas. Becklin Homestead is one of the larger units where the DNR has been working with hunting and veterans groups to create adaptive and accessible hunting opportunities.

"Our mission across the board is making sure that Minnesotans can get out in the outdoors and engage with it," said Lauren Peck, one of the DNR’s regional information officers. "And that means people of all abilities."

Many of the opportunities are driven by the advocacy organizations themselves.

"Organizations like Capable Partners have come to the DNR saying they want to host an accessible hunt," explained Peck. "That’s how a lot of these hunts have happened for I think the oldest ones have been 30 years."

But it takes coordination and a certain amount of accessible infrastructure such as vehicle-accessible blinds and wheelchair ramps to get into them.

"When we’re out here at a WMA, we want to make sure that there are places that people who might be in a wheelchair, or are blind, just have ways to get in and participate in, particularly hunting out of these spaces," said Peck.

Capable Partners is looking for more hunters, and especially volunteers to join them. Each hunter needs an able-bodied helper to join them during the hunt to assist with whatever needs they have, including offering assistance to drag a deer out of the woods.

"Come join us, because you will definitely have a good time," said Scheunemann.

The DNR has many organizations like Capable Partners working to get hunters and anglers with special needs into the woods and onto lakes. Among them are Access North, Middle River Veterans, Minnesota Veterans Outdoors, and Midwest Outdoors Unlimited.

The DNR also has a listing of organizations, here.

On this particular hunt, Dibble put his skills to work. Just before sunset, a young buck strode by his blind. Dibble dropped him with a single shot.

For the rest of the hunting party—all disabled—it was a good day in the woods.

"I’m just glad they can get out and enjoy hunting as much as I do," said Dibble