FRANKFORT, Ky. Lifelong hunter Bill Haycraft of Kentucky sees his treasured outdoors heritage under siege and in need of constitutional protection from animal rights advocates.
He’s one of many hunters backing a “right-to-hunt” amendment that’s expected to be on his state’s 2012 ballot.
Kentucky is just the latest in a long line of states that have passed or are considering right-to-hunt measures to head off a feared hunting ban.
Animal rights activists, however, say it’s all unnecessary.
“It’s a solution in search of a problem,” said Michael Markarian, chief operating officer for The Humane Society of the United States. “These measures don’t accomplish anything.”
Hunting advocates in at least five states, responding to pressure from outdoors enthusiasts like Haycraft and the gun lobby, are pushing for constitutional protections for hunting. the National Rifle Association wants to get the pre-emptive amendment in place quickly, before animal rights groups can persuade a majority of Americans that hunting is bad.
Arkansas, Arizona, South Carolina and Tennessee have right-to-hunt referendums on the ballot this year, and Kentucky, inspired by the other states, is poised to follow in 2012.
Such constitutional guarantees are already in place in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Oklahoma, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
All of those states, except Vermont, have adopted the constitutional amendments over the past 15 years. Vermont’s amendment dates back to 1777.
Haycraft, president of the League of Kentucky Sportsmen, said he learned to hunt from his father. He, in turn, introduced his own son and later his grandson to the activity, stalking deer and other game. To Haycraft, hunting is a family heritage, dating back generations. He believes it’s threatened by animal rights groups that want to make shooting animals illegal.
“They have lots of money,” said Haycraft, president of the League of Kentucky Sportsmen. “They’re highly educated. And if they can swing it with the legislatures, they will do it.”
Animals rights groups have pressed for restrictions on hunting in several states, including Kentucky where they tried to stop bear season from opening last year and in Minnesota this year where they pushed to ban dove hunting.
The right-to-hunt measures would ensure that hunting could never be outlawed without a statewide vote of the people.
“The threat is very real,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. “These folks want to make hunting a crime.”
In Defense of Animals President Scotlund Haisley said NRA and other pro-hunting groups are attempting “a backdoor approach” that would “open the floodgates for more bloodshed, more poaching, greater incidence of non-target species being trapped or snared.”
“As compassion towards animals continues to grow in American society, a greater sense of respect for wildlife and their protection has become an increased focus,” Haisley said. “Killing wildlife for sport and in hopes of adding another mounted head on the wall is a disgrace to that end.”
The right-to-hunt amendments, which generally give citizens “the right to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife” subject to existing laws and regulations, are backed by a loose nationwide alliance of hunting and gun advocacy groups.
“Every organization, both national and state, involved in hunting rights is involved in pushing this, and the gun rights lobby as a whole is in favor of it,” said Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation in Bellevue, Wash., which also has signed on. “Protecting any form of gun rights is obviously in our interest.”
Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo said he’s confident the Kentucky Legislature will put the proposed amendment on the ballot, and it will be overwhelmingly approved by voters. Hunting and fishing, he said, are by the far the most popular sports in Kentucky.
Since the days of frontiersman Daniel Boone, said Stumbo, Kentucky “has been the happy hunting ground,” and he said residents want to keep it that way.
The initiatives add an element that could boost voter turnout. However, Western Kentucky University political scientist Scott Lasley said hunting has such bipartisan support that it wouldn’t serve as an effective wedge issue between conservatives and liberals in the states where it’s on the ballot.
Arulanandam said anti-hunting groups clearly don’t yet have the political influence to defeat the amendments or to ban hunting, but that could change in the future.
“It’s not a gamble we’re willing to take at this point in time,” he said. “The reason we’re pushing this is we’ve seen an increase in the last decade or so of very well-funded efforts by anti-hunting groups and extremists to ban hunting. They’re using a very smart approach to incrementally ban hunting.”