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Muley Fanatics

Wyoming-based group hosts hunts with terminally ill children

in News/Recreation/Community
2606

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

For some terminally ill children, hunting can be a break from the grueling regimen of treatments and a chance to experience normalcy, Muley Fanatic Foundation Co-founder Josh Coursey said.

But for 20-year-old Noah Walters, it could be more — a reason to continue fighting 10 years after doctors predicted he would die, said his mother Denise.

“A few years ago, Noah was dealing with some real depression,” she explained. “If he did not have hunting, I don’t know if he would still be with us.”

Of the 3 million people in Mississippi, Denise said Noah is the only person diagnosed with Morquio Syndrome Type A, a progressive disease that prevents the body from breaking down sugar chains called glycosaminoglycans and can cause abnormal bone and spine growth, resulting in diminished stature and reduced mobility.

Despite his ailments, which include heart and respiratory conditions, Noah harvested his first pronghorn this year in Wyoming with the help of the Muley Fanatic Foundation.

“He may be a little person, but he’s a firecracker,” Denise said. “He does not allow his disease to control him.”

Noah was one of 17 people, mostly children, the Wyoming-based foundation took on hunts through the “Putting the U in hunt” program in 2019, Coursey said. “We know how important this is for children with terminal illnesses,” Coursey said. “We see it as an opportunity for us to do good.” 

‘Furthering the sport’

Founded in 2011, Muley Fanatic is a nonprofit organization dedicated to wildlife conservation primarily in Wyoming, though chapters have recently popped up in Colorado, Utah and Virginia.

“We’ve been facilitating these youth hunts from the outset,” Coursey said. “As a conservation group, part of our mission includes furthering the sport of hunting, and we recognize this as an opportunity to do that good work for these kids who are at a disadvantage.”

The idea for the program came from a friendship between the foundation’s founders and a local family whose child was terminally ill. 

“We knew as a nonprofit we could petition the game commission to have these (hunting) tags allocated to allow for these opportunities in areas conducive to the individual hunter and their needs,” Coursey explained.

Under Section 13 of the Wyoming Game and Fish hunting regulations, the game commission can issue a limited number of licenses for deer, elk, pronghorn and turkeys to nonprofits for the use of terminally ill people between the ages of 12 and 20.

“It allows the youth hunter to be in the area five days prior to the area being opened to the public,” Coursey said. 

To be eligible, applicants must submit their paperwork with a statement from a licensed physician stating the license recipient is clinically diagnosed with a life-threatening or serious illness. The application must be submitted by Jan. 31 of the requested year — a full nine months ahead of the opening of hunting season in some cases.

“It’s a long process,” Coursey said, “but that gives us time to get everything together and the families time to ensure the kids have the green light from their doctors.”

Meeting unique needs

Muley Fanatic provides the young hunters, who come from all over the nation, with an all-expense paid experience for both them and their caretakers.

“They have enough to worry about as is, so we take care of everything while they’re here,” Coursey said. “We buy the tags, provide the meals, pay for the travel and any hotel expenses they might have.”

The average hunt costs about $1,800, he explained.

“We do that through fundraising throughout the year and have donations earmarked just for this program,” Coursey said. “But we couldn’t do it without our volunteers. We have a lot of great resources in Wyoming in our wildlife and wide-open spaces, but our greatest resource of all is our people.”

For hunters with disabilities, the standard array of hunting gear doesn’t always meet their needs. In some cases, the foundation has worked with other organizations such as Holy Pursuits Dream Foundation, based in West Virginia, to supply specialty equipment for the hunters.

“We’ve had five children now that have been able to hunt with a specifically designed firing mechanism using a breathing tube,” Coursey said. “It takes a little practice out on the range to get used to, but we’ve seen some good success with the mechanisms.”

While hunters can request what type of animal they would like to pursue, he said mobility remains a factor.

“We’ve had children that have no motor function from the shoulders down,” Coursey said. “The mule deer hunts require more mobility than the antelope and elk hunts, which takes some of the access away.”

Muley Fanatic volunteer and Red Desert Outfitters owner Jason Faigl said patience is key when looking for an animal the participants could have an opportunity to harvest.

“A lot of the challenge is being able to get the hunter to the area and set up to shoot,” Faigl explained. “We do everything we can to make sure they are comfortable and make sure we’re not affecting their illness in any way.”

Word of mouth

Starting with only a couple hunts in the first year, “Putting the U in hunt” was slow to gain momentum, but participation more than tripled in 2019.

“We typically have about four to five hunters a year,” Coursey said. “This year, we had 17.”

Healthcare data is protected by federal law, so the foundation relies on word of mouth and social media to attract participants.

Having logged about 25 hunts since 2011, Noah and his family are well-acquainted with hunting organizations who help the terminally ill, but it was only recently his family learned about the Muley Fanatic Foundation.

“I’d seen the Muley Fanatic Facebook page, but I hadn’t really reached out until another organization told us about the program,” Denise recalled.

Without word of mouth, Noah might have never discovered his ability to hunt. 

“It was always something he was interested in as a kid, but he wasn’t sure he’d be able to do it,” Denise said, explaining the doctors predicted shortly after birth Noah’s life expectancy would be about 10 years. “The pastor at our church heard him talking about it one day and decided to look into it.”

With the pastor’s help, Noah discovered a group in Wisconsin that was willing to take him bear hunting.

“He’s been hooked on it ever since,” Denise said. “Not every hunt is successful, but Noah says that’s why it’s called hunting. If we were successful every time, he says it’d be called shooting.”

Having hunted all over the country, Noah was excited about the prospect of nabbing a pronghorn.

“We’d seen several antelope that morning, but they were far off or too quick,” Denise recalled about the Muley Fanatic-sponsored hunt. “It takes a long time to set up the shot. Sometimes he sits in his dad’s lap, sometimes he sits in mine. It’s a mom, dad and Noah team effort, but we get the job done.”

The team successfully harvested an antelope during their visit, an experience Denise said Noah cherishes.

“The people are absolutely wonderful, and the state is gorgeous,” she said. “Are we going to visit again? Absolutely.”

For more information about the Muley Fanatic Foundation go to www.muleyfanatic.org or call (307) 875-3133.

Conservation Contrasts: What Are You Supporting?

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Range Writing
Range Writing Conservation Contrasts
1311

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

There are major differences in the way conservation organizations accomplish their missions.

For example, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) has long made grizzly bear recovery in this region a top priority. In addition to traditional environmental advocacy work, this group “puts its money where its mouth is” by helping to bearproof public campgrounds, trailheads and backcountry camps. Its sponsors and support efforts to understand the causes of carnivore conflicts, and performs field work in minimizing conflicts, both with individuals and in communities. GYC installs electric fencing, provide funding for range riders, and helps members of the public learn how and why to use bear spray. It also helps to fund wildlife crossings of roadways.

To do this much on-the-ground conservation must take a lot of money, right? Not so much. In 2015, GYC quietly launched a 5-year, $10 million grizzly bear fundraising campaign (already raising more than $8 million and hoping to raise the remainder of the balance before the end of the year). According to GYC’s audited financial statement, the organization has about $12.6 million in assets, with 2018 revenues totaling $5.2 million, and personnel costs of less than $2 million, with their highest-paid employee receiving about $150,000 per year in total compensation and benefits.

Founded in 2012, Muley Fanatics of Wyoming is a relatively new organization, but it has used funding (generated primarily through events and gun raffles) to create partnerships to benefit mule deer and mule deer habitat, and in support of hunting. One such project focused on research to understand deer population declines. The group raised just over $400,000 in revenue in 2017, and paid out nearly $145,000 in grants, while spending $252,000 for salaries and other employee benefits, according to its 2017 tax report.

For years the Lander-based Water for Wildlife® Foundation has invested in providing supplemental water sources for wildlife, with more than 430 water projects in 12 western states. According to the organization’s 2016 tax filing, this nonprofit generated about $175,000, spent $185,000, and has nearly $1 million in assets.

Contrast these groups, their funding, and how they conduct business with another environmental group that seems to be in the news every week: the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Center for Biological Diversity has a $23 million budget, according to its 2017 audited financial statement, and spends about $12 million in salaries and payroll expenses. The CBD has expanded from its modest New Mexico origins (think Mexican spotted owl controversy) to having dozens of full-time staff meddling in issues on an international scale, and generating enough revenue that the organization can now afford to pay up to nearly $1.8 million “in deferred compensation payable to the founders of the organization and a select number of long-term employees.” Three of its top employees are each making about $300,000 per year – more than top congressional salaries. The group brags how it uses species to shut down commercial enterprises, such as leveraging protection for a protected bird into orders to remove livestock grazing, and their campaigns to protect raptors were used to shut down timber operations and industrial-scale logging throughout the Southwest.

Unlike some of the other groups I’ve mentioned, the Center for Biological Diversity isn’t a conservation organization that is out in the field working to recover imperiled species. CBD is an advocacy group using specific tactics to get species listed (and keep them listed) under the Endangered Species Act through “petitions, lawsuits, policy advocacy, and outreach to media.”

According to a report by the General Accounting Office, the federal government was sued 141 times in 10-year period for failing to meet statutory deadlines for making findings on petitions to list or delist species under the Endangered Species Act. Half of these “deadline suits” were filed by two groups: CBD, and WildEarth Guardians. These slam-dunk lawsuits over failure to meet required deadlines have become formulaic, and give groups bragging rights for their wins, as well as nets them awards of attorney fees. These are paper-only victories, keeping the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service busy with an overwhelming amount of listing paperwork rather than focused on actual species recovery efforts.

The CBD claims it has 1.5 million members and online activists. I doubt many people really know what they are supporting. It’s not conservation, it’s litigation.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

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