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Young boy's hunt 'was the best thing ever'

GRANTS PASS — Ethan Swiger and his grandfather drove the Josephine County backroads together Nov. 1 looking to usher the 12-year-old boy into one of the family's more passionate of pastimes.

They turned slowly around one corner, and there stood a black-tailed doe deer, perhaps only a yearling, in the gravel road.

Russ Oden pulled the pickup over and rolled down his window so his grandson could climb into his lap and steady his rifle on the window ledge.

Finally, in the scope's cross-hairs, Ethan found the deer on a slope about 70 yards away and pulled the trigger.

"It was my first time and my first shot ever, and I got my first deer," Ethan says. "It was so cool, to be like my grandpa."

Not bad for a kid whose body remains shriveled from a car accident so severe he wasn't expected to see his fourth birthday.

What on the surface might sound like a poaching story is actually a success story for Oregon's often-maligned program that grants extra hunting privileges to certain people who need them.

Ethan now is part of his family's hunting tradition, thanks to Oregon's Permanent Disability Permit — a program that used to be known more for its abuses by adults in the woods than for helping severely disabled people like Ethan.

Among other things, the permit allows holders to shoot legally from a parked vehicle pulled off the roadway.

That's a taboo for able-bodied Oregonians who need to beat the brush for their black-tailed deer.

For Ethan and others who can't, it's the difference between being a hunter or playing one on a video game.

"I think it's phenomenal," says Oden, of Grants Pass. "It allowed him to be a normal kid for a day. And I don't think it would have been possible any other way than with the permit."

Such an experience was the intent among Oregon's wildlife managers in 1986 when they crafted the original program aimed at keeping primarily legally blind and wheelchair-bound people in the woods.

In addition to shooting from parked vehicles, the permit allows holders to shoot cow elk or black-tailed does if they have a bull elk or a buck deer tag.

About 600 Oregonians held those permits annually until the Oregon Legislature relaxed requirements in 1999 based on requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Participants needed little more than a note from their doctor for this once-in-a-lifetime designation. Under the rules, someone who is obese or with a bad back who walked with a cane could land a life-long permit.

The ranks swelled in 2004 to about 16,000 — about 6 percent of Oregon's licensed hunters. Managers believed the ability to turn a buck or bull tag into an any-sex tag — and the easy requirements — were likely enticements for the boom in popularity.

Oregon State Police troopers in the field regularly happened upon hunters in the backwoods who had permits. One of the running jokes among troopers was the crutches never made it out of the pickup until the cops showed up.

"It was really hard to get a grasp on how big the problem was," OSP Senior Trooper Jim Collom says.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission in 2005 shored up the program by removing many of the antlerless options, tightened eligibility standards and required re-application every two years.

Now, 7,018 Oregonians hold valid hunting and fishing disabilities permits, according to Michelle Dennehy, the ODFW's Wildlife Division spokeswoman.

According to statistics, the permits do provide some benefits.

Last year, Oregon's 114,128 blacktail hunters had an overall success rate of 21 percent, statistics show. But Western Oregon's 3,049 disabled hunters had a 31-percent success rate.

Only 21 permits are for juveniles like Ethan, who passed his Hunter-Education Program course and applied for his permit as soon as he qualified at age 12.

The OSP's Collom says stories like Ethan's makes all those suspicious run-ins worth it.

"It's a sweet thing when you hear of something like that," says Collom, a Fish and Wildlife Division trooper in Central Point. "It makes you think it's exactly why that law is in effect.

"It makes me want to shake hands with him," Collom says.

They'd have to shake left-handed.

Ethan's right hand and most of his right arm are virtually useless after he nearly died while a passenger in a two-car wreck June 30, 2002, along Highway 238 about a mile east of Jacksonville.

He was flown to Oregon Health & Science University's Doernbecher Children's Hospital with head injuries, and eventually required eye surgery.

"He wasn't supposed to live," Oden says.

He's since rebounded and is a seventh grader at North Middle School in Grants Pass. Ethan is being raised by Oden and his wife, who are part of a long hunting tradition that Ethan wanted to share.

Oden and Ethan tried to hike a little to hunt, but it was very difficult. And Ethan cannot hold the gun, making field hunting virtually impossible.

Armed with a doe tag for the Chetco Unit, the pair worked the backroads off Bear Camp Road until they spied the doe near the Silver Creek drainage.

As they had practiced, Ethan climbed into Oden's lap. Ethan put the stock against his right shoulder and the scope up to his right eye, but only his left hand has fingers strong enough to pull a trigger.

Oden moved the gun side to side, then up and down, while Ethan tried to eye the deer through the scope.

"I had to tell him to move it five or six times until the cross-hairs lined up on the deer," Ethan says.

With one tug of his left index finger, Ethan was one-for-one in the hunting world.

"It was the best thing ever," Ethan says.

The proud grandfather and his grandson posed for a photo that won't make too many Bragging Walls at Rogue Valley sporting-goods stores.

But it will hang the only place where it really counts.

"The deer isn't big," Oden says. "But in our family, it's the best trophy ever."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Ethan Swiger, 12, poses with his grandfather, Russ Oden, after bagging a deer on his first hunt, thanks to Oregon's Permanent Disability Permit program. photo courtesy of Russ Oden - courtesy of Russ Oden