Last hunting season more than 41,700 resident and nonresident hunters purchased bowhunting permits in Montana. Dave Helmers wasn’t one of them, although he wants to hunt during the archery season.
The 59-year-old Antelope resident is unable to draw back a standard or compound bow because of injuries that have left his legs, arms and hands weak. In the last legislative session, Helmers lobbied for the ability to use a crossbow during the archery season. The bill died in committee, but Helmers is still unbowed.
“We don’t need someone else telling us what we can’t do,” he said.
For 14 years, Helmers taught archery shooting as a sport. The former customs agent fell off a loading dock in 2005 and damaged five vertebrae in his neck as well as some in his back, ending his archery career.
After relocating to northeastern Montana 11 years ago, he began hunting on his property, but as his injuries have continued to sap his strength, traditional hunting has gotten more and more difficult. He used to hunt with his son, who could provide some assistance, but he is now grown up and has moved out, leaving him to his own devices.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to hunt this year or not,” he said.
Helmers’ pursuit of allowing crossbows during the archery season for disabled hunters has been opposed by sporting groups as well as the Montana Bowhunters Association. The main arguments are that crossbows are more like rifles than bows — with the ability to kill at a greater distance — and that allowing crossbows during the archery season would open the door to abuse of the regulations.
But Helmers questions whether crossbows are such a big mechanical advantage compared to modern compound bows. Although bows and crossbows vary by manufacturer, a 175-pound crossbow and a 70-pound compound bow (the poundage refers to the weight necessary to draw the bow) are fairly comparable in terms of maximum speed — more than 300 feet per second — and kinetic energy.
Opponents of crossbows argue that they are accurate out to 100 feet, but that would be dependent on the skills of the shooter, as is archery hunting. Some archers are firing arrows out to 80 yards with compound bows, but all are advised to shoot at a much closer range — 30 to 40 yards — where accuracy is greater.
Opponents have also pointed to the 11,000 people who had purchased permits to hunt from vehicles as an abuse of an existing regulation that attempted to give disabled hunters a boost.
Since crossbows are allowed during the rifle season, disability advocates have said there is no legal case to push the issue as discrimination. But Helmers said crossbow hunting during the rifle season is often not practical for him or other disabled hunters because the weather is often worse, making it tougher for them to get around. The Montana archery season begins in September and runs into October. The rifle season begins in late October and runs into November.
The bowhunters group has a program to retrofit standard bows to make them easier for disabled people to shoot, but Helmers said the modified bows still require an assistant to draw back the bow for the hunter. In fact, state law requires hunters who have a “permit to modify archery equipment” to have a companion. Last year, more than 300 archers obtained the permits.
“I don’t think the state should limit you based on what your disability is,” Helmers said. “If you can override your limitations, why do they continue to limit you?”