Hunt-fish ballot question sparks debate

An Indiana legislator who co-sponsored the bill allowing a constitutional amendment to protect hunting and fishing rights on this fall’s ballot said he isn’t aware of any groups advocating for or against it.

But two large lobbying organizations have taken opposite positions on it and are encouraging voters to see their side: the National Rifle Association and the Humane Society of the United States.

The yes-no question reads: “Shall the Constitution of the State of Indiana be amended by adding a Section 39 to Article 1 to provide that the right to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife shall be forever preserved for the public good, subject only to the laws prescribed by the General Assembly and rules prescribed by virtue of the authority of the General Assembly to: (1) promote wildlife conservation and management: and (2) preserve the future of hunting and fishing?”

State Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, told the Daily Journal (Johnson County) last month that he had heard questions from voters who had no idea the issue would be on their ballot. He said he thought that’s because no group had come out in favor or against it.

The Humane Society told The Associated Press in October said the proposal is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

“The right to hunt and fish are not under attack,” said Erin Huang, director of the Indiana chapter of the animal rights group. “We’re opening up a pretty sacred document and giving constitutional protection for a pastime that we don’t do for other pastimes.”

Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, the author of the amendment in Indiana, concedes there is no imminent threat, but said he wants to make sure those rights are preserved.

“It’s up to Hoosiers to decide whether this is part of their heritage or not. For me it is, and for the thousands of Hoosiers who hunt and fish, it’s an important part of who they are,” he told The Associated Press.

Eberhart said he is confident it will pass.

Hunting and fishing are popular in Indiana. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates Indiana has about 392,000 hunters and about 801,000 anglers.

The bill passed the Indiana Senate 43-7 and the House 95-1 in February. Gov. Mike Pence signed it in the spring.

Nineteen other states have adopted a constitutional amendment to protect the right to hunt and fish. Besides Indiana, Kansas also is voting on one this year.

The NRA posted in an alert on its website Oct. 25 encouraging Indiana voters to say “yes,” and also sent mailings to members.

“Sportsmen have been under attack for many years by well-funded, national anti-hunting groups who demonstrate a clear disregard for both the cherished traditions of many Americans as well as responsible wildlife management in their drive to eliminate hunting and fishing,” the group wrote on the NRA website. The alert cites statistics on the economic impact of deer hunting and Indiana’s popularity for it — among the top 10 states, it said.

Stacey Gordon, a University of Montana associate law professor who wrote a 50-page article on the issue in 2013, told The Associated Press that hunting opponents would still be able to change the laws, but the amendments make it more difficult.

She said the NRA played a major role in pushing the amendments after 2003, providing a template for lawmakers to pass legislation because some of the early amendments didn’t offer much protection.

“What we’re trying to do is be proactive and say we don’t want these extremist animal rights groups coming in with a political agenda and chipping away people’s right to hunt,” NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen told The Associated Press.

Besides the Humane Society, the Hoosier Environmental Council also has raised concerns. A post on the group’s website calls writing the right to hunt, fish and harvest game in the state constitution “a dangerous thing to do.”

“First, the public’s ability to hunt and fish in Indiana is already considered a protected privilege for all Hoosiers under the public trust doctrine,” the group says.

“More importantly, creating such a right could have serious, unintended consequences for the state’s ability to protect its fish and wildlife including threatened and endangered species.” The group also brought up concerns about property rights and canned hunting.

Steele said the Indiana Department of Natural Resources would still be able to set limits to promote wildlife conservation and management.

Chris Niskanen, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources in Minnesota, one of the first states to pass such an amendment in 1998, said the amendment there has not caused any problem with the agency managing wildlife, and courts have agreed with the state’s right to regulate hunting and fishing.