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Does the Indiana constitution need amending for right to hunt and fish?



Jerryd Shoup is a musician in Indianapolis. - MARK A. LEE
  • Mark A. Lee
  • Jerryd Shoup is a musician in Indianapolis.

Public Question 1, the Indiana Right to Hunt and Fish Amendment, will be on the ballot on November 8. If it passes, an amendment would be added to the Indiana Bill of Rights, guaranteeing citizens the constitutional right to hunt, fish and trap animals, subject to regulations promoting wildlife conservation and management. Public hunting and fishing would be the preferred method of wildlife management under the amendment.

"The language seems innocuous," observes Erin Huang, state director of the Humane Society. "It seems legitimate ... but everybody already has the right to hunt. Do we need to be doing that for something we're not having a problem with?"

It's a symbolic preventive measure against a future ban on hunting, believes Tim Maloney, senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council. "It's a theoretical concern. No states have prohibited hunting and there is no evidence of shutting down hunting or fishing. It's far-fetched to think that hunting and fishing are in danger and need efforts to protect them."

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Huang says the National Rifle Association, which has spearheaded the effort to "forever preserve" the right to hunt and fish for 20 years, is spreading unsubstantiated fear that their rights are under attack in order to pass this amendment. "It's a threat that doesn't exist."

"The wording of the measure is very deceptive and leads people to believe that hunting rights are being challenged, which is not the case at all," says Joel Kerr, executive director of Indiana Animal Rights Alliance.

Supporters of the amendment feel otherwise. In a statement, Catherine Mortensen, spokesperson for the NRA, said: "Groups like PETA and the Humane Society were going after these laws, sort of in an incremental way. Hunting and fishing and harvesting of wildlife are part of the American fabric. We do feel it's increasingly under attack by well-organized, well-funded anti-hunting groups."

Because it is already legal to hunt and fish, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals co-founder and president, Ingrid Newkirk considers the attempt to change the Constitution a "sign of recognition that the public is sick of the cruelty they see and the cavalier attitude some fishers and hunters have to wildlife, including a disregard for basic conservation laws and those who uphold wildlife regulations." She says that as the animal rights movement grows stronger, hunters and fishers fear a ban, but "if it's in the Constitution, it is a right, not a privilege." That makes it harder to take away.

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It could also cause problems later by opening the door to costly lawsuits against the state against any and all hunting restrictions and limitations, such as deer season. "The problem is, it invites lawsuits," Huang says. "It invites problems; people will challenge limits and restrictions, so the state will spend money on defense."

Any right demands a much greater burden of proof by the government to regulate. The amendment would "limit the ability of the state to protect the lives of endangered species and non-game animals and make it harder for the DNR to do their job," Maloney foresees.

It also "ties the wildlife officials' hands," Huang believes, because the amendment proposes to make hunting the preferred method of wildlife control. This would give hunting precedence ahead of non-lethal forms of wildlife management — such as relocation, fencing and contraception — and may interfere in future efforts to find new ways to manage wildlife. The amendment may also limit the ability of local municipalities to pass their own laws to protect wildlife in their area as they see fit. "It ties their hands in being creative to humanely manage wildlife."

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However, according to Phil Bloom, director of communications for the Department of Natural Resources, a "unique clause" in the proposed legislation renders the amendment subject to the laws of the General Assembly — specifically, Indiana Code 14, Natural and Cultural Resources.

"It would have no impact on how we handle wildlife," he insists. "It doesn't change our statutory authority." Therefore, he concludes, the DNR has no position on the amendment.

If it passes, we may not see changes, Maloney speculates, "but you never know what the courts will do. Wildlife hasn't suffered as a result, but it could happen. There could be court challenges."

It goes without saying that the animal welfare community is opposed to Question 1. The Humane Society spoke out against this legislation. The Hoosier Environmental Council testified against it.

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Kerr worries that it could strip the rights of local residents to use non-lethal methods of wildlife management or of municipalities to pass wildlife management ordinances different from those passed by the General Assembly. "Rather than providing rights, this amendment will take away rights of local communities to make their own decisions about wildlife management."

Among the concerns raised is the belief that hunting and fishing don't rise to the level of a right (like speech). "They are already protected by the law," Maloney reiterates. "It's inappropriate to seek protection for them. It trivializes the importance of rights when you introduce things like this."

Calling the amendment "completely unnecessary," Kerr hypothesizes that "the only reason it's on the ballot is because our legislators did a favor for the NRA and animal agriculture lobbyists."

Several of Indiana's legislators are NRA members, Maloney says. "Many don't feel [the amendment is] needed, but they don't want to be seen as not supporting hunting and fishing. It's seen as a symbolic act by legislators who are not fervent gun supporters but believe in traditional hunting and fishing." He says this legislation has been "talked about for 10-20 years," but only recently gained momentum, thanks in part to support from the NRA and Protect the Harvest, a group dedicated to assisting "in the fight for the rights of America's farmers, ranchers, animal owners and sportsmen/sportswomen," which he says lobbied for the legislation.

Maloney also accuses founder Forrest Lucas of making significant campaign contributions to Indiana legislators in an attempt to influence them on the issue. Powerful oil tycoon Lucas is also involved in pushing his agenda in Massachusetts; according to a Boston newspaper report, he has spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat proposals aimed at banning puppy mills, restricting hunting and curtailing farming practices." Most recently, he is helping fund an "11th-hour effort to defeat a ballot question that would ban the use of cage confinement for farm animals."

In order to place a legislatively referred constitutional amendment on the ballot in Indiana, it must be passed by a simple majority of the members elected to each of the two chambers over two legislative sessions. In 2005, both the state House and Senate passed measures to change the constitution to include the right to hunt and fish. But it failed in 2007.

It was revived two years ago when the canned hunting battle reached a climax. The bid was approved in 2015 and then again in March 2016, earning a place on the ballot this fall. Hunting and fishing in Indiana constitute an almost-$1 billion-per-year industry and support more than 14,000 jobs. This is one of the top ten deer-hunting states in the nation.

Indiana isn't alone in considering legislation. Kansas will have a similar amendment on its ballot this year. Nineteen other states already have constitutional provisions providing for the right to hunt and fish, with Vermont becoming the first back in 1777. (The other 18 adopted amendments since 1996.)

Californian and Rhode Island have constitutional amendments guaranteeing the right to fish, but not to hunt. Florida and New Hampshire have statutes that proclaim a right to hunt and fish, but neither has a constitutional amendment stating that.

While states seem to be adopting these provisions one by one, Huang says the Humane Society continues to make people aware of what it means to amend the constitution and what this particular amendment could mean for wildlife. It's a matter of how much research people do and how deeply they think about it, she believes. "Remember, the Right to Farm didn't pass."


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