The Legislature should step in to mandate the allowance of crossbows during archery season for hunters with disabilities, a Laurel lawmaker said in support of his bill Tuesday.
Sen. Brad Molnar, a Republican, brought Senate Bill 111 before the Senate Fish and Game Committee in an emotional, and at times, contentious hearing. The senator said that due to injuries he cannot hold and draw a bow, but that a crossbow would allow hunters with disabilities to continue to hunt during archery seasons, often with their families, and encourage continued participation in hunting.
The bill would provide a $10 crossbow permit for those who would qualify via a doctor’s determination of disability. A hunter with disabilities must have purchased an archery permit in the previous three years or completed bowhunter safety. The bill changes another requirement that a hunter with disabilities have a companion with them. The bill would sunset in three years.
Various legislation allowing crossbows during archery season for hunters with disabilities has been brought unsuccessfully in the past. Crossbows are currently legal during the times and for species that firearms are allowed or in some weapons-restricted areas.
Molnar introduced his bill displaying a recurve and compound bow next to a crossbow. Compound bows have advanced significantly, making them far from primitive weapons, he said. While adaptive equipment may be available to aid archers with disabilities, some still cannot hold the bow due to upper body ailments, he continued, calling arguments brought by opponents of allowing crossbows during archery season “nonsense.”
“What Senate Bill 111 does is challenge the premise that Montana can deny our handicapped population an implement that allows them a degree of normalcy,” Molnar told the committee.
Supporters of the bill including advocates for people with disabilities testified that adaptive equipment designed to hold a bow at full draw are expensive, cumbersome, and do not address hunters who cannot physically hold a bow to fire it.
Pete Siegel approached the podium in his wheelchair to address the committee. He understands better than anyone his disability, he told the committee. He is unable to hold a bow to fire it but a rifle rest designed for his chair would allow him to fire a crossbow.
“I want to hunt. I want to archery hunt. I’m no longer able to with a compound bow,” he said.
Travis Hoffman, testifying for the Montana Association of Centers for Independent Living, echoed concerns about the limits of adaptive archery equipment while also pointing out that archery seasons tend to occur during warmer months and some people with disabilities are more dramatically affected by extreme cold.
Beth Brenneman with Disability Rights Montana testified that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, public entities are required to accommodate people with disabilities including modifications for participation, unless that is a fundamental alteration of the activity. Not only is hunting a tradition in Montana, but people with disabilities may be disproportionately affected by depression, and hunting has been shown to be an outdoor activity with positive benefits, she said.
Bowhunting advocates testified in opposition to the bill, saying that advancements have been made to modify bows with adaptive equipment and organizations work with hunters with disabilities, but that crossbows are unique weapons from archery equipment. Crossbows may already be used extensively to hunt in Montana but allowing them during archery season, when animals such as elk and pronghorn are rutting and most vulnerable, could see an unsustainable uptick in harvest.
Steve LePage, president of the Montana Bowhunters Association, testified that archery equipment has stood the test of time and other than firing an arrow, their functionalities are not equivalent.
“Crossbows belong in the rifle season where they are already legalized and there are ample days throughout the year to use them,” he told the committee.
Tim Roberts with Traditional Bowhunters of Montana said that the current bowhunter education course does not address crossbows, thus making an “irresponsible” assumption that the course offers adequate safety training.
Paul Kemper, also with Traditional Bowhunters of Montana, noted that archery season is species-specific for animals such as deer and elk. But with early and late shoulder seasons for elk, game birds and other hunting opportunities, a crossbow could be used legally to hunt about 300 days per year in the state.
Several archery advocates cautioned that some other states that initially allowed crossbows for hunters with disabilities were eventually opened up further.
Other opponents including conservation groups and former commissioners on the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission felt that decisions about whether to allow crossbows during archery season would be better made by the commission, which already has the power to do so if it so chose. Former Commissioner Shane Colton of Billings also cautioned that the bill could cause a swell in applicants and displace hunters with disabilities currently using modified archery equipment.
Under questions from committee members, Molnar had some heated exchanges with Democrats and voiced frustration with some of the opponents.
Democratic Sen. Tom Jacobson of Great Falls asked Molnar about reported issues with permits to allow those with disabilities to hunt from a vehicle, to which Molnar offered a challenge to bring complaints to the board of medical examiners for reconsideration of the doctor’s determination.
In closing on the bill, Molnar expressed frustration with some of the opponents, using a profanity to discredit a point made in opposition that other states had regrets about allowing crossbows, and indicating his belief that the Montana Bowhunters Association had too much influence in dictating archery seasons and permissible equipment. Allowing crossbows would not have a biological impact and hunters with disabilities choosing a crossbow would represent a small percentage of bowhunters, he said.
The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.
Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.