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Warbler Ridge Conservation Area Welcomes the Fallen Outdoors Hunting Program for Wounded Veterans

Rob Stroud

Originally published in the Journal Gazette & Times Courier, November 13, 2023


CHARLESTON — Navy veteran Ashtin Bader has long enjoyed the skills and quietness involved with archery, an interest that led her to become a bowhunter a few years ago.


Now, the Tuscola resident is helping provide outdoor sports opportunities for fellow veterans and promoting hunting to other women as a volunteer with The Fallen Outdoors. This nationwide nonprofit group's programs include a new partnership with the Warbler Ridge Conservation Area in Charleston, where nine veterans have been taking part in a 15-day bow hunt set to conclude Wednesday.


"It's beautiful terrain," Bader said of her impression of Warbler Ridge after scouting hills and ridges there that feel like they belong in the Appalachian Mountains. "It's almost like you are not in Illinois."


The 1,059-acre conservation area along the Embarras River south Charleston is managed by the Grand Prairie Friends. Executive Director Sarah Livesay said this nonprofit conservation land trust has opened Warbler Ridge to public-access hunting for four years now through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources' Illinois Recreational Access Program (IRAP) for privately-owned land.


Livesay said welcoming The Fallen Outdoors this year has consistently filled more of Warbler Ridge's hunting areas, where trails have been temporarily closed as a safety precaution, with outdoor enthusiasts and relieved the pressure caused by large number of deer on the conservation area's plant life.


"We are so glad to have these veterans on the property, communicating and engaging with each other, engaging with the outdoors, and participating in a hunt to help us with our deer management program," Livesay said.


Navy veteran Ashtin Bader of Tuscola displays the Barnett TS390 crossbow that she has been using to hunt deer at the Warbler Ridge Conservation Area in Charleston through a partnership with The Fallen Outdoors nonprofit group.

ROB STROUD, JG-TC


Regarding engagement, the Tuscola bowhunter said she and her husband and fellow Navy veteran, Jeremy Bader, got involved with The Fallen Outdoors Midwest chapter a few years ago after visiting this its booth at the Illinois Deer & Beer Fest in Bloomington-Normal.


Ashtin Bader, who served in the Navy from 2005-2014 as a weapons technician, said this organization provides veterans with camaraderie like they had while serving in the military by offering them a variety of outdoor sports opportunities nationwide at no cost.


"We really like this group. It is a great group of people," Bader said.


Veteran Clayton Yantis, who serves as the Illinois lead for The Fallen Outdoors, said this organization also works to help veterans find healing from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, loneliness and other issues that too often lead to suicide. The Teutopolis resident said he and other fellow volunteers have received counseling training to assist with these efforts.


"We bring the veterans together. They realize they have someone they can talk to," Yantis said.


The Fallen Outdoors Midwest took 475 veterans on hunting, fishing and other outdoor sports trips in 2022. Yantis said they have set a goal of taking 550 this year.


Yantis said the partnership with DNR's Illinois Recreational Access Program (IRAP) has helped by opening more land to hunting opportunities. In Charleston, he said the Grand Prairie Friends group has been supportive, and the veterans hunting at Warbler Ridge have been appreciative.


Alex Davis, IRAP marketing and outreach specialist with DNR, and Tony Kloppenborg, Northern IRAP coordinator with DNR, said Yantis first approached IRAP with the idea of partnering with The Fallen Outdoors to provide veteran dedicated hunts in January.


They said IRAP already gives preference to youth, first-time and veteran hunters to increase hunter recruitment and retention, so staff and enrolled landowners alike were enthusiastic about the idea of providing more opportunities for veteran hunters.


With the understanding that the first year of partnering together would exist on a pilot-program basis, IRAP staff and The Fallen Outdoors volunteers began coordinating a network of IRAP-enrolled landowners who would be willing to offer additional, veterans-only hunting periods for archery deer and upland bird hunting in November.


"IRAP staff are thrilled to be able to try out something new this year and provide some tremendous deer hunting and upland bird hunting opportunities for (The Fallen Outdoors) veterans," they said.


Bader said now that she has been developing her bowhunting skills and discovered how tasty venison can be when processed by River Bend Wild Game & Sausage Co. in St. Joseph, she has set goals of giving waterfowl and upland bird hunting a try.


This ties in with her volunteer service with The Fallen Outdoors as a Midwest chapter member on its national women's committee, which is promoting hunting and other outdoors sports to female veterans.


"My goal is to become more confident in these things, so I can take more women outdoors and they can be more confident," Bader said. "I am being challenged and putting myself outside my comfort zone. I am really enjoying it and helping out veterans."


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