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Bill opening archery season to crossbows raises questions on disabilities, ethics

Doug Krings

One legislative bill is raising questions of what should count as “disabled,” how should that be determined, and should those with limitations be allowed to use different weapons during a season historically limited to bows.

On Thursday, the House Human Services committee heard two hours of arguments on Senate Bill 111 that have more to do with hunting than with human services, although that’s not what the sponsor wanted them to think. That’s because SB 111 would allow people to hunt with crossbows during the early fall archery season if a doctor decided they have a condition that limits their ability to hold or draw a bow.

“You thought you were done hearing disability rights bills and you got a really juicy fish and game bill. The bad news is that’s not true – this is a disability rights bill,” said Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel.

Molnar wants the ability to use a crossbow because, as he demonstrated, he has a weak shoulder and can no longer hold a bow level. He said the bill sets out to “challenge the premise that Montana can deny our handicapped population the use of an implement that allows them to enjoy a degree of normalcy.”

Several disabled supporters, some of whom were in wheelchairs, made the argument that not being allowed to use crossbows was discrimination and being able to use crossbows would get them back out hunting.

However, many of the 20 or so bill opponents pointed out that the disabled can already hunt with crossbows during the five-week general season and many of the special seasons when anyone can use crossbows. They can even use crossbows during the bow season if they’re hunting cow elk on private property as part of the early shoulder season.

“The reality is there are 300 days a year or 10 months that Montanans can hunt with crossbows as a legal weapon where it doesn’t change the definition of an archery-only season,” said Paul Kemper of the Montana Bowhunters Association.

Years ago, the general rifle season was set in late October and November to catch a bit of the ungulate rut in the fall. A separate archery season was created later for safety reasons – keep bow hunters from getting shot – and prevent overcrowding.

In Montana, the early season has remained an archery-only season although over the past 20 years, bills have repeatedly tried to introduce crossbows into the season.

“This is the ninth attempt to push crossbows into Montana’s archery season,” aid opponent Kevin Robinson. “This is quite possibly the worst version of all the past bills. SB111 puts the responsibility of the Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission into the hands of a doctor. At a minimum this bill needs to be changed to help those with disabilities and prevent those with a bum shoulder from exploiting the system.”

A few bill opponents said they had injuries that would probably qualify them to use a crossbow but they still use an archery bow. Bozeman hunter Liberty Brown held up his arm so committee members could see the deformity in his wrist. He said he has been injured but he is not disabled. But under the bill, he could potentially exploit the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“This is not a disabled bill. Aging is not a disability. Having a permanent condition that makes it hard for someone to draw a bow is not a disability. Let’s all stop pretending that this is a disability bill,” Brown said. “The bill doesn’t say a permanent disability, it says a permanent condition.”

In 2008, after Montana passed a law allowing people to hunt from a vehicle if their doctor determined they couldn’t walk, 500 people applied to do so. Four years later, that number jumped to 12,000, causing FWP to ask for a requirement that the disabled have a companion hunter.

SB 111 previously had a similar requirement for permittees to have a companion to help field dress an animal, but Molnar had it removed.

Molnar has defended his bill saying it would keep Montana from being found in violation of the ADA “so a federal judge doesn’t write our fish and game laws for us.”

Kristen Hanson, Chief Deputy Attorney General, said the legal grounds for maintaining the situation in its current form is a bit tenuous. But the bill does a lot to “allow independence for many members of our community.” When asked why existing crossbow opportunities didn’t count as reasonable accommodation, Hanson said she didn’t want to get too deep into a legal argument.

Attorney General Austin Knudsen carried a similar bill two sessions ago.

Bill opponent Tim Roberts said the Montana Bowhunters Association helped make the state compliant 20 years ago when the organization worked with FWP to change the regulations to allow disabled hunters to use adaptive devices on their bows. Since then, the organization has raised money to help more than 600 disabled hunters rig their bows.

Montana has already defended its archery season against complaints filed with the Department of the Interior in 2003 and 2007. The Interior Department ruled the state in compliance.

Eleven other states limit crossbows only to firearm season, including Alaska and Washington.

Bowhunter Dane Rider said if crossbows are allowed, the Montana Bowhunters could have trouble raising enough money to give people modified bows so disabled hunters would lose out.

Committee member Ed Stafman asked if there was a difference between the two weapons. Sporting goods storeowner Ed Beall said there was a big difference.

Bowhunters have practice a long time to get accurate at up to 100 yards while a crossbow hunter can become accurate after a day. High-end crossbows can shoot 100 yards, although they’re not very effective at that distance, but crossbow owners might be tempted to shoot the longer distance. An ethical shot with a compound bow is about 40 yards, Beall said.

“A compound bow and a crossbow – the only thing similar is they both have “bow” in their name,” Beall said. “The two weapons are miles apart. I would say a crossbow is closer to a small-caliber rifle effective at 100 yards. It’s going to create a lot of issues in the state of Montana by introducing crossbows into the archery season.”

Molnar closed his presentation saying nobody will game the system because nobody wants to use a crossbow.

“Much of what you’ve heard, I’m not saying they’re lying, I’m saying they’ve been saying it for a long time and the facts have moved on,” Molnar said.

That’s similar to what Molnar said in late February after his bill passed the Senate on a party-line vote.

Bowhunters had written emails to Molnar asking him to pull the bill and gave reasons why they felt it was unnecessary. What they received from Molnar wasn’t what they expected from a senator.

One response was “Damn, you are dumb.” In a handful of others, Molnar called the bowhunters “bigots” and said they had no credibility. Letters informing Senate leadership of Molnar’s contempt received no response.

When the Current asked about the emails, Molnar said the bowhunters’ arguments against crossbows were “gibberish.”

“Here’s what I’ve said to several. What they say is basically ‘get to the back of the bus.’ And I find that bigoted. And if they don’t like being called a bigot, because they tell people who are disabled that their rights are secondary to their pleasure, and they don’t want to see them in the field, then I have an issue,” Molnar said. “Everything they say is nonsense. If they’re quoting the same studies I am, I have to assume they’re liars. To purposely mislead is to lie. If they don’t like me pointing that out, then I can’t help them.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.