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Coming home, and heading for the hunt

When U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lt. James Nash asked his boss whether he could take leave from his tank-commander duties in Afghanistan to hunt mule deer in northeast Oregon, Nash was met with the unknown that defines life at war.

"He laughed and said, 'I don't know what country we'll be in,' " writes Nash, 26, in an email from Afghanistan.

Truth is, Oregon soldiers like Nash can't plan a trip home to hunt because the randomness of their leave schedules mean they can't apply in advance for most big-game tags.

But thanks to Nash, they now have a chance to hit the woods should they find themselves visiting home in the fall.

After a year's prodding from Nash and his father, Enterprise rancher Todd Nash, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has created a new program that allows Oregon service men and women the ability to get controlled deer and elk tags over the counter should they find themselves home during hunting season.

The program was created last week when agency officials filed a temporary rule for the current season. It could become permanent if adopted today as expected by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission as part of the 2013 Oregon Big Game Regulations packet.

Call it the Nash Rule, and it's likely the first program of its kind in the nation to grant exceptions for deployed soldiers on leave.

"When we get our precious leave and go home, we want to spend time with our families and do the things we love," Nash writes in his email to the Mail Tribune. "Until this law changed, hunting wasn't an option."

Under the rule, each ODFW wildlife district can authorize up to 20 controlled deer tags and 20 controlled elk tags to Oregonians who can prove they are on leave while stationed outside of the state.

The rule applies to most deer and elk hunts with at least 20 tags in them. It also allows enlisted personnel to get general-season elk or deer tags for Western Oregon after the normal closure dates.

Applications for this year must be made through any of the four ODFW regional offices, including the one in Roseburg.

The idea started in 2010 when Nash found himself home on leave that fall and wanted to go hunting with his father and life-long hunting partner. They were able to get James Nash an over-the-counter tag for a spike-only elk hunt in the Imnaha Unit.

"That's when we realized how small a window there is for guys in the military," Todd Nash says.

Father then persuaded son last August to write a letter to the commission asking for access to tags for service men and women on leave.

Tom Thornton, ODFW's game program manager, liked the idea but didn't know how his agency could pull it off — including getting a change in law.

"I told him that was unacceptable," says Todd Nash, a vocal critic of ODFW's wolf policies. "I told him they could figure it out. They're big boys."

Thornton and others started looking around at other states but found no such program in place. So Thornton talked with other biologists to see what hunts could withstand extra tags and how much extra pressure those hunts could absorb.

"We wanted some way to recognize people serving overseas and give them a chance to hunt with friends and family in Oregon when they're home," says Michelle Dennehy, ODFW's Wildlife Division spokeswoman.

They came up with the current program last spring. It received tentative approval by the commission in June, setting up today's vote.

"To their credit, they did it," Todd Nash says. "I'm really proud they stepped up to the plate.

"I hope other states will follow suit and implement these kinds of rules," he says.

James Nash is elated with the change and is telling every Oregon service member he knows about it. They're thrilled about it, he says.

"Their response was identical. 'Now I can finally hunt when I go home.'

"Hunting is a bond that Oregon Marines all share," he adds. "We understand things about each other through the subject of hunting that cannot be explained to a friend from somewhere else."

One thing James Nash knows, however, is that he likely won't ever use the program spawned by his letter.

The three-year veteran plans to leave the Marine Corps next September, so he'll be hunting as a civilian.

But perhaps someone in his hunting party will benefit from the program he spurred.

Nash's brother Josh Nash is a 13-year member of the U.S. Navy about to deploy on the USS Nimitz.

"He might make it home for a cow hunt in November," Todd Nash says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman

James Nash