Twenty-two states have enacted legislation or amended their constitutions to protect the right to hunt and fish. Many of these amendments include trapping or the right to harvest wildlife using traditionally-accepted methods. In other words, this legislation was intended to put sportsmen first, using hunting and trapping as the preferred means of keeping wildlife populations in check, as opposed to using artificial methods, such as sterilizing whitetails in urban areas, for instance.
Vermont was the first state to make hunting, fishing, and trapping a right, including it in their constitution in 1777. Since 1996, 21 other states have moved to protect hunting and fishing: Alabama (1996 and 2014), Arkansas (2010), Georgia (2006), Idaho (2012), Indiana (2016), Kansas (2016), Kentucky (2012), Louisiana (2004), Minnesota (1998), Mississippi (2014), Montana (2004), Nebraska (2012), North Carolina (2018), North Dakota (2000), Oklahoma (2008), South Carolina (2010), Tennessee (2010), Texas (2015), Virginia (2000), Wisconsin (2003), and Wyoming (2012).
On paper, these amendments are huge wins for sportsmen. It should be noted, though, that not every amendment specifically states “trapping” but instead uses the phrase “harvest wildlife.” Many trappers I have talked to about this issue seem to think that their trapping rights are protected under this legislation, but that is simply not the case. Even in states that specifically name “hunting, fishing, and trapping” as rights, trappers are not safe from attack.
The purpose behind these amendments is clear. First, to recognize the rights of the individual to do these activities. Second, preserve the state’s power to regulate these activities. Third, preemption of local regulation that contradicts statewide wildlife management. Fourth, protect the use of traditional methods such as archery and hunting with dogs. And then, of course, recognition of hunting and trapping as the preferred means of managing wildlife rather than contraception programs or sharpshooters.
Again, all of that sounds great on paper. But what does it really mean for sportsmen, and specifically for trappers?
What Lawmakers Say
A key to understanding the political pull of a right to hunt and trap amendment is to look at the legislators who have offered their opinions on the matter. North Carolina is the most recent state to making hunting, fishing, and trapping a right, so I’ll use them as an example.
In an article in The Citizen-Times, published online on October 16, 2018, Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, was quoted as saying the amendment is “a blatant partisan use of the constitution to draw out a particular voting populace. When you give people the idea that something is threatened, like hunting, fishing, and if we don’t make it an amendment, it’s going to go away, that’s just foolishness. It’s not true.
Fisher goes on to say, “Why are we using the state constitution to tack on all of these things out of a sense of fear that they might be threatened? When has hunting and fishing ever been threatened?
I don’t know about you, but that gave me chills when I read it, and not the good kind of chills, either. Any politician who says that hunting – let alone trapping – has never been threatened is oblivious of how hard sportsmen have worked to protect our rights.
In the same article regarding North Carolina’s vote on the right to hunt, fish, and trap, Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, was quoted as saying, “It is pretty clear the amendment won’t actually do anything.”
Van Duyn also stated that she believed “the constitution is a pretty sacred document. Not that you can’t change it, but not without a good reason to change it.”
Unfortunately, these same senators and representatives probably wouldn’t have any qualm about altering their state constitution to ban some form of hunting or trapping. It just so happens that North Carolina, like many of the states that have similar amendments, has a very strong outdoors heritage.
And then there are states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and West Virginia, all major outdoors hubs, who simply won’t pass a right to hunt, fish, and trap amendment. Many times, voters don’t get the chance to decide, as these measures are struck down before they even reach the ballot.
Two years in a row, 2017 and 2018, Rep. Drew Dennert, R-Aberdeen, introduced legislation to amend the South Dakota state constitution to include the right to hunt, fish, and trap, and it was voted down each time. One of the main opponents of the bill was the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department whose lawyer argued that such a measure would undercut the government’s position that hunting, fishing, and trapping are privileges – not rights.
The general consensus among lawmakers and state wildlife agencies seems to be one of ambivalence when it comes to making hunting, fishing, and trapping a right. In some instances, since there are no imminent threats to outlaw any particular activity, states feel legislation is a waste of time. In other instances, it’s a power struggle (in my opinion) in that wildlife agencies don’t want to risk losing their authority to enforce conservation laws.
Although I personally believe that these constitutional amendments are mainly feel-good actions that ultimately protect nothing, there is a certain amount of power associated with calling something a right versus a privilege. But if we think making hunting, fishing, and trapping a right will protect them from animal rights groups, we’re sadly mistaken.
Perhaps the most popular way that our hunting and trapping rights are tested is through ballot initiative. Animal rights groups have often relied on ballot initiatives to whittle away at our hunting and trapping rights, one state at a time.
Currently, 24 states allow voters to submit initiatives to the state ballot initiatives: Nevada, California, Illinois, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, Montana, Maine, Massachusetts, Alaska, Florida, Nebraska, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming, Missouri, Mississippi, Arkansas, Michigan, and Ohio. Three other states – New Mexico, Kentucky, and Maryland – permit popular referendums, but not initiatives.
Both initiatives and referendums grant power to the people to accept or reject legislation. The main difference between the two is that initiatives are typically introduced by citizens whereas referendums are introduced by the legislature. Basically, initiatives force the government to accept the popular vote of its citizens. In a referendum, the citizens get the opportunity to accept or reject new laws or proposals made by the government.
It’s relatively easy to get an issue on the ballot to be voted on by the general public. All it takes is writing the initiative in clear, precise language and submitting it to a state official for review. Once approved, organizing groups must gather enough petition signatures to get the issue on the ballot next election.
The number of signatures varies slightly from state to state and is usually based on a percentage of the voter turnout from the previous election, although each state seems to have its own number. In Maine, for instance, groups must obtain signatures from at least 10% of the total votes cast for governor in the previous gubernatorial election. By comparison, in Wyoming, the number of signatures needed is 15% of the votes cast during the previous general election, which is the highest percentage of any state.
Electronic signatures are changing the game, and most states don’t know yet how to deal with this new technology. As of right now, the constitutionality of bans on e-signatures and the legality of e-signatures in states without bans is largely untested. But how long will it be until they are contested? This emerging technology is a potential game-changer for political activists, as it requires much less time and effort to acquire signatures electronically.
Once an issue is on the ballot, trapping and conservation groups must spend millions of dollars to defeat it. It’s a sad waste of financial resources. But if it’s one thing animal rights groups have, it’s money, and they win by “starting fires” in as many places as possible so that it’s difficult for sportsmen to defend everywhere at once. The 1996 general election was a prime example. That year, eight states were forced to defend their rights against ballot initiatives. Sportsmen lost four of them, including Colorado and Massachusetts, which lost their ability to use all leghold and body-gripping traps.
The question is this: if any of these states had amendments to their constitutions that made hunting, fishing, and trapping a right, would these ballot initiatives have still passed? Sadly, yes, they still would have passed. Here’s why.
The great flaw of these amendments is in the language used in the legislation. For instance, nowhere in any of these amendments, in any state constitution, do these laws guarantee your right to use a foothold trap, body-gripping trap, snare, or even a box trap. The language in every amendment is vague at best.
After all, you can still trap in New Mexico…just not on public land. And you can still trap in Massachusetts and Colorado…as long as you use box traps. So, in essence, you still have the right (or privilege, as some state wildlife agencies might say) to run a trapline there and harvest fur. The same thing can happen in every other state, even the ones that have amendments making hunting, fishing, and trapping a right.
Rather than fight to take away those rights, animal rights groups simply lobby to restrict the types of traps we use until we can no longer use the most effective tools to get the job done. Perhaps a good analogy would be what good is a driver’s license if you don’t have a car to drive.
Join the Fight
In 2016, in Montana, there was a hard push to restrict trapping on public lands, backed by the anti-trapping group Footloose Montana. The measure was defeated 63%-37%. Montana is one of the 22 states who have amended their constitution to protect hunting and trapping, yet trappers there still found themselves scrambling to protect those rights.
If legislation and ballot initiatives such as this can threaten trapping rights in a state like Montana, where roughly 25% of the population buys an annual hunting license, is there any state where these rights are safe? The short answer is no.
Not long ago, I joined a discussion on social media regarding what we can do to protect our trapping heritage. I was appalled by the number of people who said they didn’t have to worry about having their trapping rights taken away because they lived in one of the 22 states that had constitutional amendments protecting them.
Living in one of these 22 states doesn’t mean that you’re protected from various legislation and ballot initiatives designed to infringe upon those rights one piece at a time. And thanks to technology, in the future it will become easier and easier for animal rights groups to drum up the support needed to get more wildlife issues on the ballot. These constitutional amendments may guarantee your right to hunt and trap, but they don’t guarantee which species you’ll be able to hunt or trap, or what methods you’ll be allowed to use.
We still need to fight to protect trapping, and the best way to do that is to join a state or national association. It’s easy to get complacent when you live in a state that isn’t under attack – and if that’s the case, count yourself lucky. But eventually, the time will come when we must all defend our way of life, and none of the constitutional amendments in any of those 22 states will do an ounce of good when it comes to protecting what we love to do.
Join the National Trappers Association today and fight to keep our rights to hunt and trap.