Two states are letting voters decide next week if their citizens should have their specific rights to hunt and fish enshrined in their constitutions, continuing a trend that goes back to the 1990s.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 17 states already have state constitutional guarantees that protect the right to hunt and fish. In addition, two states, California and Rhode Island, have constitutional provisions that protect fishing, and not hunting.
Now, voters in Alabama and Mississippi voters will cast ballots to expand protections of a constitutional right to hunt and fish next week.
Alabama and Mississippi’s legislatures previously passed acts that referred the issues to voters to approve in referendums. And both measures would add specific language that hunting and fishing are the “preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife” in those respective states.
The NCSL says the drive to constitutionally protect hunting and fishing goes back to 1996, when 16 of the 17 states started asking voters to approve protective measures. (Vermont’s hunting and fishing provision dates back to 1777.)
In addition, legislation is pending in five states: Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, while legislation failed this year in Missouri and West Virginia.
Supporters of the amendments cite two reasons for why they need to be included in state constitutions.
One reason is that they believe increasing urbanization, decreasing habitat, and the growing influence of hikers and bikers who want trail access is quickly limiting the amount of land that can be used for hunting and fishing. The other is the growing influence of animal rights groups that seek to limit some hunting and fishing methods.
A Wall Street Journal profile in April 2014 stated both sides of the argument.
Michael Markarian, chief program and policy officer at the Humane Society of the U.S., told the Journal the amendments were unneeded and ineffective. Markarian said the amendments "are largely an overreaction to efforts that seek to curb abusive or unsporting practices. … Eliminating bear-baiting doesn't mean there's no bear hunting."
Nick Pinizzotto, president of the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, told the Journal that the amendments added "another layer of protection. … It sends a loud and clear message that we are a state that embraces the outdoor lifestyle of hunting, fishing and trapping."
In Alabama, the proposal was sponsored by Rep. Mark Tuggle, who told a local television station that he sponsored the proposal at the request of the National Rifle Association.
"Hunting and fishing are huge industries in the state and country. A lot of people don't understand or realize that excise taxes (on hunting and fishing equipment) fund the conservation department. It's a big deal. It's a positive economic impact for the state and we're trying to enshrine the right to hunt and fish for the future," Tuggle said.
In Mississippi, the lead sponsor of the proposal is Rep. Lester "Bubba" Carpenter. "We're hoping to send a message to the rest of the country that we are passionate about our hunting and fishing. We don't want anybody dabbling with our sportsmen's way of life," he told GulfLive.com.
Lydia Sattler, Mississippi director of Humane Society of the United States, said her organization wouldn’t challenge the Mississippi proposal, but she hoped lawmakers would also consider similar measures about preventing animal cruelty.
In a related story, hunting advocates and animal rights groups are battling over a referendum in Maine that would restrict some methods of bear hunting. A November 4 ballot proposal would ban three types of hunting techniques that animal rights groups say are unsportsmanlike (including using doughnuts to bait bears).
Hunting proponents and state wildlife biologists have united to oppose the ban, believing the state’s permissive hunting laws are needed to control the bear population.
Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.
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