USA -(Ammoland.com)- The pre-hunt meeting at Warren Prairie Natural Area Wildlife Management Area seemed fairly typical on the surface. Everyone met at the rally point at noon on Monday, Nov. 6, to go over the background of the day’s hunt and enjoy a cookout of hamburgers and chips.
But as the five men selected for the special permit hunt began to speak, it was obvious that the routine appearance belied the true nature of the event, and the men taking place in it. Each of the men had been selected to participate as a “Thank you” for their service in the armed forces.
The five veterans on the hunt represented the U.S. Army, Air Force and Marine Corps. While some had obvious disabilities from their time in the armed forces, all had scars.
Their status ranged from 90 percent disabled and in need of a gun rest and special chair to hunt to extreme cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. No matter his condition, each was excited to be a part of this special hunt and to spend a time of fellowship in nature.
Mark Hooks, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission regional biologist in Monticello, said the idea for the hunt came from Bill Holimon, chief of research and inventory with the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. From there the partnership grew to include the National Wild Turkey Federation and Freedom Defender Outdoors.
“All we did really was set up a regulation, prepare a few blinds and cook a meal,” said Hooks. “These men are the ones who made the sacrifice. If this experience can help them with the lasting effects of the things they have seen, then it’s the least we can do.”
Hooks says finding the veterans to participate was handled by Jarred Cartwright and his organization Freedom Defender Outdoors. Cartwright, the son of former AGFC Deer and Elk Program Coordinator Michael Cartwright, has made it his life’s mission to take veterans on hunts through his organization.
“I’ve been doing hunts since 2014 and do veteran hunts and fishing trips here in Arkansas, as well as in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma,” Cartwright said. “We find candidates for the hunts and fishing trips through our page on Facebook and will try to help any soldier or veteran from any branch of service.”
Cartwright says the effort was many years in the making.
“I’m a veteran myself, and on my last deployment I lost a good friend over there,” Cartwright said. “I really felt like something was calling me to do something when I got home.”
“It took about four years after coming home and it started slowly, but after people see the videos, pictures and impact the trips have the page has grown and grown.”
Cartwright says he was truly humbled when he was contacted by Terry Thompson, president of the Arkansas NWTF state chapter, to be a part of the hunt.
“I just hope and pray that we get more involvement from these organizations in Arkansas and we get more veterans out here to enjoy this type of fellowship taking place here,” Cartwright said.
Previous hunting experience varied between participants. Some had hunted in their youth, but two of the participants had never harvested a deer. One had never even had the opportunity to deer hunt.
Stacey Rice, one of the veterans participating in the hunt, had been in Desert Storm as well as a deployment to Bagdad after 9/11, where a car bomb had injured him and taken the life of a friend.
“I really didn’t have any interest in going hunting after I returned home,” Rice said. “But a friend finally convinced me to go with him duck hunting, and it was such a wonderful experience that I look forward to each time I am able to go. There’s just something about it that is therapeutic.”
Recovery is a common theme on Warren Prairie Natural Area WMA. The 5,552-acre natural area also is the home of a successful reintroduction of the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species that requires open pine woodlands, habitat that has declined since the days of European settlement.
The woodpecker specializes in open savanna-type landscapes composed of older age-class pine trees, particularly longleaf pine. Unlike other woodpeckers that create cavities in dead wood, this species excavates a cavity in tall living pines, sometimes as young as 40 years old, but most often in trees older than 70 years.
In addition to the cavity, it drills a series of holes underneath to release sap along the surface of the tree. The sap creates a natural type of “sticky trap” that deters predators like snakes from climbing into the cavity and preying upon the birds and their hatchlings.
“These cavities can take two to four years to create, depending upon if the pine is healthy or not,” said Holimon. “They prefer a tree that has red heart fungus (a disease found in older pines), because it will soften up the wood and make it easier to drill into. As you can imagine, drilling into a living pine is messy work with all of the sap that will come out, so it can take a long time.”
To help establish colonies, biologists create artificial cavities in trees that are preferred by the woodpeckers before releasing them into a new area.
“In some cases the birds have established new clusters without the added help, but the artificial cavities have shown much more success,” Holimon said.
Planting the seeds for success seems to have found a home on this unique area in southeast Arkansas. Of the five participants, four had shots at harvesting a deer during the hunt.
“We plan to work with a private landowner to get that other hunter another chance this season,” Hooks said. “And we hope this hunt is just the beginning of a statewide trend to show our veterans the thanks they deserve.”