HELENA - Montana wildlife regulators suspect more and more people are faking disabilities to take advantage of privileges granted to disabled hunters, so they want to remove one of those perks in hopes of curbing abuse.
Permits to hunt from a vehicle, called PTHV permits, are given to Montana hunters with certain disabilities certified by a doctor, chiropractor, nurse or physician assistant. The permit allows a disabled person who can't get around without assistance to hunt from a self-propelled or drawn vehicle.
In some prime hunting areas, those permit holders are allowed to drive along roadways normally gated and closed to all other vehicles. They are also allowed to shoot cow elk without buying an additional antlerless elk license, even in some areas where licenses aren't available to the general public.
That kind of access has led to abuse of the permits by apparently healthy hunters, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials said.
"Most of what we see is people utilizing the permit as an opportunity or a resource to be able to take an antlerless elk," said James Kropp, the FWP's chief of law enforcement. "They're a long way from their vehicle dragging elk off the mountain unassisted, really in a situation the permit was not designed for."
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As of Monday, 9,188 lifetime PTHV permits have been issued, according to FWP. The result has been a reduction in the number of cow elk in some areas, such as the Bitterroot Mountains in southwestern Montana, said FWP Commission Chairman Bob Ream.
"The population is being knocked back because of the substantial cow harvest in certain districts," Ream said.
But even when they encounter instances of apparent abuse, it's usually difficult for wildlife officials to penalize a person who holds a valid permit without putting them in the awkward position of deciding whether a person is disabled.
"Given the fact that these are signed off by a medical physician, it's not really our judgment to determine whether they are or they aren't," Kropp said.
Ream and his fellow commissioners gave initial approval Friday to a plan that would ban holders of the special permit from shooting cow elk with just a general big-game permit.
The ban, which was originally proposed by a disabled hunters group called Blackfoot Access Group, aims to curb the problem by taking away one of the biggest incentives for abusing the program.
"You've got so many people who scam their way into getting a PTHV because of these incentives," said George Hirschenberger, a retired Bureau of Land Management program manager who works with the Blackfoot Access Group. "We're not asking for that privilege to go away, we're asking the commission to suspend the privilege until the PTHV is back under control."
Hirschenberger said he saw evidence of the abuse in the sheer number of people without apparent disabilities who would arrive at his BLM office and at other BLM and U.S. Forest Service offices seeking keys to open the gates of the roadways closed to all but the PTHV permit holders.
"If this guy can walk from his car to the front desk without a problem, what is the reason for him to have a PTHV?" Hirschenberger asked.
Ream said he hopes the ban will be a temporary measure that lasts just until the Legislature tightens the criteria to qualify for the permits, a cause the Blackfoot Access Group plans to lobby for during the 2013 legislative session.
The permit qualifications are set in state law. A person must be dependent on an oxygen device, wheelchair, crutch or cane, or else be an amputee above the wrist or ankle. The last qualifying clause is that a person must be unable to walk unassisted for 600 yards over rough terrain while carrying 15 pounds within an hour and be unable to handle or maneuver up to 25 pounds.
"That last clause - that's ridiculous," Ream said. "It needs to be more medically based than that. And secondly, it shouldn't be a lifetime permit."
That last category is where the biggest spike in PTHV applications comes from, and those applications have been rising since 2008, when the commission allowed permit holders to hunt cow elk without a license, FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim said.
In 2005, before the change, 564 new permits were issued to disabled hunters who cited that qualifying condition. In 2009, the year after the change, 943 new permits citing that condition were issued, Aasheim said.
The proposed ban, which is now out for public comment before a final decision will be made in February, has been endorsed by hunters' groups in Helena and Missoula.
"This proposal will return respect for the disabled hunters program," said Rod Bullis of Helena Hunters and Anglers.