May 06–Nine-year-old Brent Steele carried an unloaded gun when he first stalked quail in the southern Indiana woods with his father. Before the boy was given ammunition, Brent was taught how to handle a gun safely and to respect the forest and wildlife.
Decades later, 66-year-old Brent Steele, now a Republican state senator in Indiana, worries that forces are aligning that would deprive future generations of the same experience. He is the author of legislation, approved by both houses of the Indiana legislature this year, which would enshrine the right to hunt and fish in the state constitution. If lawmakers approve it a second time next year, Indiana voters can take the final step with a ballot measure in 2016.
Indiana is one of eight states_Alabama, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are the others_considering constitutional amendments to protect hunting and fishing rights. (Alabama’s constitution already includes such a provision, but the state is considering replacing it with a more expansive one.)
Vermont included hunting and fishing rights in its original 1777 constitution. But the remaining 16 states with constitutional amendments all approved them within the past two decades, and seven did so in the past five years. That is no coincidence: Fearing that anti-hunting groups were gaining traction in some states, the National Rifle Association in the early 2000s asked a group of constitutional scholars to draft model language that might be added to state constitutions. Then the NRA recruited allies in state capitols to lead the charge.
“Groups like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and the Humane Society were going after these laws, sort of in an incremental way,” said NRA spokesperson Catherine Mortensen, who described the effort as a high priority for the organization.
“Hunting and fishing and harvesting of wildlife are part of the American fabric,” she said. “We do feel it’s increasingly under attack by well organized, well funded anti-hunting groups.”
Steele, an NRA member who won the group’s “Defender of Freedom Award” in 1996, didn’t need much convincing. Hunting “is a part of our heritage and it’s been a rite of passage and a way for our youth to learn an appreciation for the out-of-doors, firearm safety and the preservation of wildlife,” he said. “I don’t think we’re under so much of a direct attack now, but you’ve got to look 30, 40 years down the road, and a lot of the stuff our kids read in school is very anti-hunting.”
Like many others, Steele also touts hunting and fishing as an important economic issue for his state. Revenue from hunting and fishing licenses, sales taxes from sporting goods stores and taxes levied on hotel and motel visitors create jobs and add millions of dollars to state coffers, Steele said. According to the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, which is conducted every five years, in 2011 people spent $672 million on fishing and $222 million on hunting in Indiana. Nationwide, spending reached $89.8 billion.
But Indiana state Rep. Matt Pierce, a leading opponent, said the amendment aims to solve a problem that doesn’t exist_and likely never will. “What you tend to hear from proponents is that they’ve heard of some nefarious conspiracy in which the Humane Society of the United States, in league with some multi-billionaire, will wash so much money into the political system that it will convince members of the legislature to outlaw hunting and fishing,” said Pierce, a Democrat. “It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
Nicole Paquette, the Humane Society’s vice president of wildlife protection, asserted that “no one is trying to eliminate hunting and fishing.” Rather, Paquette said, her group is focused on “trying to end some of the most egregious hunting practices.” Paquette said these include the use of bait to lure bears into the open, making them easy targets for hidden hunters; using packs of dogs, sometimes fitted with radio collars, to pursue bears, cougars or other wildlife; and captive hunts that confine the hunted animals to enclosed areas.
The Humane Society has lobbied successfully to ban such practices in some states. Two years ago, the group championed a California measure that bans bear and bobcat hunting using dogs, and last year it successfully lobbied for a California ban on lead ammunition, which can harm condors and other wildlife that scavenge carrion. It also has been involved in an effort in Maine to prohibit bear hunting with bait, dogs or traps, which will be put to the state’s voters this November.
“We have responsible hunters on our side who agree that these practices should not be allowed,” Paquette said. “We are the Humane Society of the United States, so we do not support hunting. But as a practical matter, we don’t work to stop hunting and fishing.”
The Humane Society opposes all the amendments. But it concentrates on fighting those, such as the one under consideration in Missouri, which are worded so broadly it would be difficult for lawmakers or voters to approve any hunting restrictions. In March, for example, Republican Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska vetoed a bill outlawing cougar and mountain lion hunting, arguing it conflicted with a 2012 constitutional amendment stating that “hunting, fishing, and harvesting of wildlife shall be a preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife.”
In 2010, Arizona voters handily defeated a ballot measure that would have added hunting and fishing rights to that state’s constitution. The Humane Society played an active role in that election because the measure would have prevented any future hunting restrictions.
There are other factors contributing to hunters’ unease. Douglas Shinkle, who tracks the issue for the National Conference of State Legislatures, noted that, “The country is increasingly urbanizing, and habitat that used to be open fields is now contiguous to development.”
According to the U.S. Forest Service, between 1982 and 2001 about 34 million acres of open space were lost to development in the U.S._an area the size of Illinois. The agency predicts that another 26 million open acres will be developed by 2030.
Such concerns motivated New York state Sen. James Seward, a Republican who is pushing a hunting and fishing amendment in his state. “There is increasing development around the state, and there has been some loss of open lands and wild areas,” said Seward, whose measure was approved by the Senate but has not been taken up by the Assembly. “As we see areas change, the connection between a good portion of our population and the traditional outdoor activities like hunting, trapping and fishing seems to be getting lost.”
Hunters argue they are conservationists because the destruction of habitat, or the eradication of species, would mean the demise of their sport. They note that President Theodore Roosevelt, one of America’s first conservationists and the father of the U.S. Forest Service and five national parks, was an avid hunter. As a young man, Roosevelt was greatly affected by the time he spent in the West, where he saw that bison herds had been decimated by overhunting and grasslands destroyed through overgrazing.
Thirty years later, hunters urged Theodore’s cousin, President Franklin Roosevelt, to sign the Pittman-Robertson Act, which levies an 11 percent federal tax on firearms, ammunition and bows and arrows. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hands the money over to state wildlife departments, which decide how to spend it. The law has raised $8.4 billion for wildlife management, helping to restore populations of bighorn sheep, bobwhite quail, ruffled grouse and wild turkeys, among many other species.
The 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation noted that hunting participation was up 9 percent compared to the last survey in 2006, while angling participation grew by 11 percent. In 2011, 37.4 million U.S. residents 16 years old and older went fishing and/or hunting. That number includes 33.1 million who fished, 13.7 million who hunted and 9.4 million who did both.
However, over the last 40 years the number of certified paid hunting license holders in the U.S. has declined, even as the country’s population has grown dramatically. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there were about 14.6 million paid hunting license holders in 2013, compared to 15.6 million in 1993 and more than 16 million in the mid-1970s.
Though he opposes the amendment in Indiana, Pierce described hunting and fishing as “a very important part of our culture,” adding that “there is really no serious possibility of Indiana ever banning hunting and fishing or putting significant restrictions on it.”
But Lindsay Rajt, a PETA spokesperson, said hunters are on the wrong side of history. She described the amendment push as a desperate attempt to counter “the declining popularity and interest on the part of the public in murdering animals as a pastime.”
“There is no reason in this day and age to be out in the woods hunting animals for sport,” Rajt said.
Vermont included hunting and fishing rights in its original 1777 constitution. The remaining 16 states with constitutional amendments approved them within the past two decades.
(State: Year of Adoption)
North Dakota: 2000
South Carolina: 2010
Source: National Conference of State Legislatures