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Hunting enthusiasts take aim at crossbows

Rick Gabbard lost his left arm in a logging accident 13 years ago, and it took him years of effort to hold his beloved bow in his prosthetic hand so he could draw back and shoot an arrow with his right.

Still, don't tell Gabbard that Oregon should give disabled hunters at least the option to hunt with a crossbow, even though it's the only state in the country that doesn't.

"If I had a crossbow, I could have killed an elk every single day of the season," says Gabbard, 65, of Bend.

And that, Gabbard steadfastly believes, eventually would ruin bowhunting in Oregon. Success rates would skyrocket and hunting opportunities would plummet if hunters like Gabbard could start shooting animals from 200 yards away instead of 35 yards, he says.

"I'm a disabled hunter, and I shoot a bow like everybody else," says Gabbard. "I can't be against anything more than crossbows."

Gabbard will be back on his soapbox this afternoon imploring state wildlife leaders to keep Oregon's archery rules free of crossbows, even for the most disabled of hunters.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission today will revisit whether to give hunters incapable of holding a bow or rifle the option to use a crossbow during archery hunts.

Of the 6,329 people now with an Oregon Disabilities Hunting and Fishing Permit, only 872 — or 14 percent — have disabilities that fit that classification. To become crossbow-legal, disabled hunters would need a doctor's explanation as to why they can't use adaptive archery equipment such as draw locks to shoot arrows using their mouths or chins.

Under current rules, only nonprotected species such as nutria and coyotes that are not part of hunting rules can be shot legally with crossbows.

If the commission decides to move forward on a crossbow pilot program, it would reverse a decades-long approach to a weapon whose use is common and readily acceptable to hunters in most Southern and Midwestern states.

But many of those are states where whitetail deer populations are high enough that hunters are encouraged to kill multiple deer annually. That's far different from Oregon, where migratory herds of deer and elk are relatively low and few hunters are lucky enough to get one of each a year, let alone eight.

The Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association has long opposed crossbows because of their potential impacts on harvest rates and, therefore, season lengths because deer and elk seasons are determined largely by the anticipated numbers of animals killed.

Crossbows also are seen as a potential tool for poachers who can take advantage of a quiet weapon that can drop a deer or elk across two football fields instead of just at close range. Still others fear allowing crossbows for disabled hunters creates the proverbial foot in the door for the crossbow industry to expand its presence in a state largely devoid of them.

But the OHA, for now, is supporting the crossbow option for would-be hunters proven to have severe disabilities.

"That's so only those people who really need it will be allowed to do so," says OHA President Fred Craig of Grants Pass. "If it gets loosened any from there, we would not support it.

"Archers would start losing tags," Craig says. "We're at a point where we have no more room for new hunts."

Jay Rodebaugh thinks Craig and the rest of Oregon's hunters and wildlife managers are way too paranoid.

"Some people might think allowing it for some disabled hunters is a step in the right direction, but you still have a long way to go," Rodebaugh says.

The 73-year-old Wenatchee, Wash., archer and former archery industry insider enjoys crossbow hunting and cannot fathom why Oregon isn't joining other states by opening crossbows to all archers, let alone just the most disabled of their ilk.

"It's extremely close-minded," he says. "A lot of people in the crossbow industry are pretty put-out by Oregon's ostrich approach.

"You're living in your own little world down there," he says.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has not taken a stand on the crossbow issue.

To get today's commission's discussion going, however, it has provided commissioners with the disabilities permit package that was last considered by the seven-member commission in 2010.

"I'm sure that will be a lively discussion and we'll see where the commission goes," says Tom Thornton, the ODFW's game program manager.

Gabbard will be there, just like he has the past four commission meetings, railing against crossbows wiggling their way into Oregon archery hunts.

"I've fought too long and hard for our archery seasons to give up those so easily," he says.