Giving disabled hunters a lift 

Between Lolo and Florence, there's a stretch of Bitterroot River floodplain, rocky and sandy this time of year, where a black steel platform lies hidden among the cottonwood, aspen and pine. On a recent smoky afternoon, Bart Morris, a regional coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' block management program, pushes a button. A motor whines and the platform slowly rises 12 feet, offering a clear view of the surrounding forest.

A few weeks ago, Morris and other FWP staffers installed this solar-powered lift for its third hunting season. It's intended to offer disabled bow hunters a perch to spot deer and elk, the sort of line of sight others can get by scrambling up a ridge.

You get here by following a two-track east from U.S. Highway 93. It's easy access, but even getting from the truck to the lift requires passing over a patch of rock and sand. "It shows you that folks with wheelchairs, just to get them out here, is so challenging," Morris says, reminding himself to cover the patch with a piece of plywood.

While the lift stands on state land, the road passes through the private Sapphire Ranch, owned by Mark Reiling, who lives in Minneapolis. The lift was his idea. When he bought the property five years ago, he says, he wanted to go beyond giving access to folks who'd historically hunted the land. He first built a couple of handicapped-accessible waterfowl blinds, and paid for the bulk of the $10,000 lift in 2010.

"Once you're on the property...it gives you the feeling like you're really out in the middle of nowhere and away from it all," Reiling says. "That's probably a very important feeling for people who are confined to a wheelchair."

Morris says only three hunters have used the lift so far, resulting in two deer taken. The hunting district is archery-only.

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