Perhaps I am a day late and a dollar short when it comes to discussing the passage of Amendment E, which added the right to hunt and fish to Utah’s constitution. This discussion is not about the importance of the measure but rather whether a ballot the right tool for enactment. Currently, 22 other states have passed a bill addressing this issue (including Idaho in 2012). Only Arizona failed to pass this ballot measure.
Having the right to hunt and fish in a state’s constitution has a long history. Vermont did so in 1777. Vermont’s statement to this end was simple; “The inhabitants of this State shall have liberty in seasonable times, to hunt and fowl on the lands they hold, and on other lands not inclosed, and in like manner to fish in all boatable and other waters (not private property) under proper regulations, to be made and provided by the General Assembly.”
For over 200 years no other state added a similar measure to their constitution. This changed in 1996 when Alabama did so. Seven more states followed their lead and added wording to protect hunting and fishing. Starting in 2008, constitutional amendments not only included the right to fish and hunt, but a statement that hunting and fishing is the preferred way to control wildlife populations.
Don’t get me wrong, I generally agree with this statement. The second part of these newer constitutional amendments, however, does step into the political realm. It is now not only about protecting individual rights, but how the state should manage wildlife. Adding laws that dictate fish and wildlife management can be a recipe for disaster. All one has to do is look at the actions that caused states to consider adding hunting and fishing to their constitutions.
In 1990, a California initiative made it illegal to hunt or trap cougars. Using the ballot in 1994, Oregon made it illegal to use dogs to hunt cougars. According to a recent paper in The Wildlife Professional, the last 30 years have seen 51 wildlife management issues end up on state ballots. This include Colorado’s current ballot question that would require a plan for wolf reintroduction in the western part of that state. As of last Wednesday night, this bill was ahead by 15,000 votes.
The problem with citizen’s initiatives when it comes to wildlife is they often have unintended consequences. The intent of both state laws was to increase cougar protection. Closing the hunt in California achieved this goal but may have put people at greater risk. While cougar deaths are exceedingly rare (27 in the last 100 years), two occurred in California in 1994.
What happened in Oregon was even more surprising. Before this initiative was passed, approximately 400 cougar tags were sold each year. After the law was passed closer to 14,000 tags are sold annually. Because of depredation concerns, an additional 130 cougars are killed each year (with dogs) to protect livestock. As a result, the average annual harvest in the five years prior to 1994 was approximately 165. Between 2012 and 2016, approximately 375 cougars were killed annually.
The reason things related to fish and wildlife end up as citizen initiatives is politicians write laws that don’t reflect the broader public’s views. For example, a paper published in 2007 found 78% of Utah’s urban respondents had a positive attitude toward wolves as did 62% of the rural respondents. Utah lawmakers have gone out of their way to minimize the chance wolves will persist in this state. If this disconnect between the public and politicians continues, it won’t surprise me to see a citizen’s initiative on this topic in the next decade or two.
The best way to address fish and wildlife issues is not with new laws but to display science and preferences in the framework that is already in place. This generally means providing thoughtful input to state fish and game agencies – whether they ask for it or not. This can seem like a Herculean task if you want something other than a greater number of a huntable or fishable species. In providing input sometimes you will win, most times you will lose, but there will be slow movement to better management of a larger subset of species with fewer unintended consequences.
Yes, hunting and fishing is now a constitutional right in Utah and Idaho. Rights, however, come with responsibilities. If we don’t live up to these responsibilities, the same mechanisms that added these two rights to the constitution can be used to retract them.