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'Right to Hunt' Amendments Pit Gun Rights vs. Animal Welfare

With backing by the NRA, making hunting a constitutionally protected right has become increasingly popular in the past decade. The latest battlegrounds are Alabama and Mississippi.

The first state to add a right to hunt to its constitution was Vermont in 1777.
ELECTION 2014: This article is part of our coverage of ballot measures to watch.

If enough Mississippi voters think it’s a good idea support hunting and fishing, they’ll join 17 other states in ensuring constitutional protections for the practices. 

So-called “Right to Hunt and Fish” amendments have become increasingly popular in the past decade, as groups like the National Rifle Association have led yearly pushes in states they consider friendly terrain. Their objective: to head off future regulation against hunting and also establish it as the “preferred” means of wildlife population control, as opposed to special forms of contraception and other methods of thinning out herds.    

In Alabama, which already has a hunting rights amendment, advocates want to make it even stronger through the ballot box in November. The amendment before voters would make hunting and fishing the “preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife.” Mississippi’s amendment would do that as well. 

Both amendments would be subject to “reasonable regulations” that promote wildlife conservation, but animal welfare groups, such as the Humane Society of the United States, generally oppose constitutional protections for hunting for a number of reasons. They often deride the measures as policies that don't respond to any particular threat but merely will make it difficult to regulate more controversial practices down the road. 

“It could prevent really progressive reform that would be necessary if there were really egregious abuse, certain forms of trapping like the kind we’re trying to fight against in Maine,” said Tracy Coppola, the director of the Humane Society’s Wildlife Abuse Campaign. 

Her example in Maine refers to hounding, trapping and baiting, which sometimes include using mounds of human junk food to ensnare trophy catches or chasing bears into trees with a pack of dogs equipped with GPS devices for easy tracking. The group is trying to ban the practice in Maine this year. The NRA is opposed to the measure

The NRA says the Maine referendum is overly restrictive. It would mostly ban the use of dogs in bear hunting. But the NRA’s issue with animal welfare organizations is much broader. 

While the Humane Society argues its interest is to maintain traditional, humane forms of hunting, the NRA argues the group’s ultimate goal is to displace hunting as the most common means of wildlife management. The group does fund research into methods such as immunocontraception, a vaccine that uses the body’s immune system as birth control. It hasn’t yet reached wide use in the U.S., but some American towns are exploring it to control deer populations.

The threat of new forms of population control, initiatives to ban dove hunting, campaigns to prohibit lead bullets, challenges to bear hunting and other perceived efforts to limit hunting are alarming signs to hunting enthusiasts. “We’re not in jeopardy of losing hunting as a right today, but, you know, that’s the whole point of a constitutional amendment, to protect the next generation or the generation after that,” said Lacey Biles, the NRA’s deputy director of state and local affairs.  

The first state to add a right to hunt to its constitution was Vermont in 1777, though the wording didn’t go as far as Alabama, Mississippi or other recent additions to right-to-hunt states in establishing the practice as a wildlife management tool. Most of those recent additions came in the past 14 years, mostly in the South and West but also among some Midwestern states, such as Minnesota. A number of other states, such as New Hampshire and Florida, have statutory protections but not constitutional ones.  

There’s been a steady stream of bills in state legislatures seeking constitutional protections for hunting, some appearing in more liberal (but active hunting) states.  Over the past two years, bills have appeared in Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Bills have advanced through committees in Indiana and West Virginia but haven’t moved in any of the others. Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey have among the highest number of hunters per square mile in the country.     

Biles said the NRA doesn’t keep track of every right-to-hunt bill that pops up in a state legislature, many of which weren’t initiated by the group, which claims a 90-percent success rate in places it specifically targets. One miss came in 2010 in Arizona, where groups actively opposed the effort. But there isn't any organized opposition to Alabama and Mississippi’s campaigns, which are both featured on the NRA’s website. Given near-unanimous legislative support for the bills that launched the amendments in Alabama and Mississippi, that lack of organized opposition and both states' pro-gun, pro-hunting traditions, it’s a safe bet that both will pass their amendments in November. 

Whether right-to-hunt amendments will continue their steady momentum, though, is less certain. 

Chris covers health care for GOVERNING. An Ohio native with an interest in education, he set out for New Orleans with Teach For America after finishing a degree at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. He later covered government and politics at the Savannah Morning News and its South Carolina paper. He most recently covered North Carolina’s 2013 legislative session for the Associated Press.
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