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Published: Sunday, 2/24/2008

Getting around to hunt; Harsanje, Kollarik want to aid the mobility impaired

For Bob Harsanje of Oregon the prospect of the swift passage of Ohio House Bill 473, which would greatly assist the state's mobility impaired hunters, is a dream come true.

Proposed by State Rep. Peter Ujvagi [D., Toledo], at the urging of and guidance from Harsanje and a hunting buddy, Gil Kollarik, House Bill 473 among other things would create mobility impaired access lanes on various public hunting lands of the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

The bill also would allow mobility impaired, licensed individuals to hunt from such lanes with a special permit via electric-powered all-purpose vehicles or in a stationary road vehicle.

"Mobility impaired hunters deserve the same rights to enjoy their pastime as any other Ohioans," said Ujvagi. "This plan will help clear some of the obstacles in their way."

Testifying before lawmakers, Dave Graham, state wildlife chief, thoroughly supported the proposal.

"The Division of Wildlife has long sought to provide enhanced access to hunters with mobility impairments to interior areas of the state's wildlife areas, while limiting disturbance to other hunters and minimizing negative impact to wildlife habitat," he stated.

For his part, Harsanje said the proposed legislation "gives hope. It takes the focus off the disability and focuses on opportunity. The physically impaired want nothing more than to be accepted as themselves."

He estimates Ohio is home to several thousand mobility impaired hunters.

From left, State Rep. Peter Ujvagi, Gil Kollarik and Bob Harsanje at a hunting blind near Luckey. The two convinced Ujvagi to sponsor a bill helping the mobility impaired gain hunting sites. From left, State Rep. Peter Ujvagi, Gil Kollarik and Bob Harsanje at a hunting blind near Luckey. The two convinced Ujvagi to sponsor a bill helping the mobility impaired gain hunting sites.
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A former businessman and longtime hunter, Harsanje more than eight years ago contracted an uncommon form of Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer. He has battled long-term medical complications since, bare-knuckled and unflinchingly, living in and out of hospitals and moving with a walker or canes but never complaining. One of his buddies has grown to calling him the Sultan of Pain.

"I'm still throwing punches," he likes to say, but modestly and quickly notes, "it's not about us."

The bill he helped foster was unanimously approved Tuesday by the House Finance Committee and now goes to the floor. It would be folded into Senate Bill 209, an omnibus fiscal bill that already includes some other natural resources provisions.

"It should be a done deal by the end of March, God willing and the creek don't rise," mused Harsanje. In testimony before the House committee, Harsanje stressed that mobility impaired hunters take their responsibilities very seriously.

"No matter whether they use a shotgun, compound bow, crossbow specially outfitted to their wheelchairs, you will find them to be more cautious, attentive, and determined to take extra-special care and consideration before they fire a shotgun or release an arrow "

If approved the Ohio Department of Natural Resources initially would construct three new access roads - one each for a wetland, woodland, and grassland hunting area - in each of the state's five wildlife districts for a total of 15 such lanes. Traffic would be limited to EPAPVs.

Currently hunting rules designate just nine motor vehicle access lanes statewide on wildlife areas for use by hunters with disabilities.

The plan also would extend the hunting zone to at least 100 yards on either side of the paths and amends state gun laws that prohibit firing of a weapon from a vehicle in this specific case. In addition, mobility impaired hunters would be able to hunt from stationary road vehicles on designated service roads.

Up to now, Harsanje noted, physically impaired hunters have been limited to special drawing-hunts conducted once a year on several state wildlife areas. "These are great events for those lucky enough to be drawn, but because of their popularity greater numbers of applicants are being turned away each year."

Similarly, the National Wild Turkey Federation sponsors a Wheelin' Sportsmen program to provide quality hunts for the physically impaired. But again, demand is high for limited opportunities. The Maumee Valley Chapter of NWTF, and Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority teamed up with the state wildlife division last April to sponsor such a hunt for wild turkeys on Toledo Express Airport property.

Harsanje's buddy, Kollarik, a member of Tomahawk Archers, an area bowhunting club, recalls how the idea initially gained traction.

"I'm thinking about Bob's situation. We built him a blind so he could hunt." That eventually led to the idea of taking a Wheelin' Sportsmen concept statewide onto public hunting lands.

They took their idea to John Daugherty, manager of Ohio Wildlife District 2, and he was instrumental in pointing the way. "We are excited about what the bill can do for hunters with mobility impairments," Daugherty said.

Phil King, federal aid coordinator for the state wildlife division, traced Ohio's track record as a leader in such issues. He noted that Ohio was the first state to sign a memorandum of understanding with NWTF to be an official sponsor of another popular program, Women in the Outdoors and in 2005 the division was honored by NWTF for its work with Wheelin' Sportsmen.

In 2006 the division was recognized by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for providing equal access under federally funded programs, activities, and services.

Kollarik and another friend, Aultie Gilliland, "sacrificed huge amounts of their time and themselves to build a special enclosed pole blind and a ground blind that I may easily access, despite my inability to walk without mechanical aid over very short distances," Harsanje told lawmakers. "They made it easy for me to continue to be just one of the guys again, a few guys who share a love for hunting, other hunters, and the great outdoors.

"Many, maybe most physically impaired people are not so fortunate," Harsanje said in urging approval of the proposal. He said mobility impaired hunters "do not seek sympathy or sorrow, merely a chance to regain some of the normalcy they knew before their lives were unexpectedly and permanently changed."

Contact Steve Pollick at: spollick@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.



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