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WASHINGTON — 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, that 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 multibillionaire, 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 opposes all the amendments. But it concentrates on fighting those, such as the one under consideration in Missouri, that 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.
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 with 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 with 15.6 million in 1993 and more than 16 million in the mid-1970s.
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