Voters will decide this November whether to amend the state constitution to make North Carolina the 22nd state to protect hunting and fishing as a right. But the proposal has some animal-welfare and environmental groups worried that its vague language could keep the state from restricting unsafe or inhumane hunting methods.
Some supporters of the constitutional amendment say there is an attack on hunting across the country being driven by extremists. Other backers say it’s meant to prevent future restrictions on hunting as North Carolina continues to grow rapidly.
Critics, though, say the amendment is unnecessary and shows the power of the gun lobby over lawmakers who decide what amendments go on the ballot.
Jill Fritz, director for wildlife protection at the Humane Society of the United States, said supporters around the country are pushing the idea that without these amendments, citizens or interest groups will try to prevent sportsmen from being able to hunt and fish in the future.
“These types of amendments are a solution in search of a problem,” Fritz said. “Nobody is actively trying to eliminate all hunting and fishing in the United States.”
Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, said she thinks the bill is part of a plan to turn out voters in the November elections as Republicans fear they may lose the supermajority they hold in the General Assembly.
The amendment is one of six proposed by the Republican-controlled state legislature to be on the fall ballot.
Harrison complained when the hunting bill made its way through the state House that the vague language could endanger current hunting regulations and inhibit attempts at future wildlife management regulations.
Harrison tried to add language ensuring inhumane methods such as steel jaw traps and poison couldn’t be used and that Sunday hunting restrictions would stay in place. Those efforts to amend the bill failed.
“The amendment is not carte blanche to harvest wildlife without regulation,” John Culclasure, the central Appalachian states manager for a group that supports the amendment, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, said in an email. “Hunting seasons, bag limits, and other restrictions would still apply.”
The foundation’s website describes it as a network of pro-sportsmen elected officials that “protect and advance hunting, angling, recreational shooting and trapping.”
The proposed amendment doesn’t mention trapping, but says people have the right to use “traditional methods to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife.” Opponents have complained that language is too vague.
“What the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation says is by using a phrase like traditional methods, proponents can give a stronger protection to trapping without actually mentioning trapping,” Fritz said.
In North Carolina, trapping licenses are on the rise. They have increased 33 percent in the past decade, though the total numbers are still relatively small — 2,283 in fiscal year 2018.
In contrast, hunting license sales have dropped about 12 percent. In the last fiscal year, the state sold 227,732. That includes short-term, annual and lifetime licenses, some of which allow fishing too.
The amendment would also make hunting and fishing the “preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife.”
Fritz said this is in response to citizen efforts around the country to modernize wildlife management. She said there are cases of urban and suburban communities where residents would prefer firearms not be used to manage the deer population because it isn’t a safe method in highly populated areas.
State Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Union County Republican and a sponsor of the bill, said he doubts the amendment would have immediate impact but it would help sustain the state’s hunting heritage long-term. He said as the state grows and becomes more densely populated people may want to restrict hunting in certain areas.
“I would not say it was under attack in North Carolina,” Tucker said. “It is the possibility of the future of the heritage of hunting being removed through municipalities and counties and by restricting hunting rights in certain areas.”
Questions about what kind of regulations will still be allowed under the amendment may end up being answered in the courts.
As legislators grapple with issues like multi-million-dollar hog farm lawsuits, the opioid crisis and segregation in public education, some opponents of the amendment are asking how it earned a spot on the ballot.
Those critics point to the influence of the National Rifle Association and the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, both tied to the gun industry and with political influence nationwide.
The North Carolina amendment is similar to what other states have on the books and to language posted on the website of the NRA’s lobbying arm as a template for states to use.
The idea of enshrining hunting as a right dates to 1777, when Vermont became the first state to include it in its constitution, according to the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. The modern wave of amendments began in 1996, a few years after the foundation started.
The NRA and Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation both testified in support of the North Carolina legislation before a committee in June.
Through regular fundraising events — and frequent receptions with food and drinks, according to news reports — the foundation has access to an extensive network of elected officials.
The foundation is tied to the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, which has nearly 300 members of Congress, and separate organizations for state elected leaders. The NC Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus, also tied to the foundation, has almost 100 North Carolina state legislators as members, according to Culclasure.
The group’s website lists three of the members, including Wake County Republican Sen. John M. Alexander, Rep. Michael Wray, a Democrat from Gaston, and Rep. Larry Yarborough, a Republican from Roxboro. It also lists Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, as a member of its governors’ caucus.
The foundation’s website touts its influence. It states “no organization has access to so many elected officials,” adding that “we know how important it is to have an effective voice in the political arena looking out for your interests.”
According to the foundation’s website, the NRA is a “titanium sponsor.” The foundation’s president, Jeff Crane, previously served as the vice-chairman of the NRA’s Hunting and Wildlife Conservation Committee.
Laura Nirenberg is the founder of the Center for Wildlife Ethics, an organization that fought against a similar hunting and fishing amendment when it was brought to Indiana in 2004. She said these bills seem to have little impact on wildlife protections. She doesn’t know of any efforts in Indiana to cite the amendment in court disputes.
“The legislatures have bigger problems that benefit the collective good of everybody that they could be addressing but they waste time with this,” Nirenberg said.
Nirenberg said there’s misleading language in legislation like Indiana’s and North Carolina’s that protects the practice of trapping without naming it. She said a constitutional amendment shouldn’t be misleading to the public.
“This cookie-cutter legislation we’re seeing that keeps getting passed around, it’s so obscene and it has nothing to do with the will of the people,” Nirenberg said. “It has nothing to do with the best interest of the public. It’s … catering to private interests.”
‘Numbers are dropping’
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released national survey results in 2016 that showed more than 103 million Americans over the age of 16 participated in a form of wildlife recreation.
The results showed an increase of 20 percent since 2011 in the number of people participating in wildlife watching, which refers to observing, feeding or photographing wildlife, to more than 86 million people in 2016. Spending as part of those activities increased 28 percent to $75.9 billion, which includes equipment, magazine and membership dues.
Fishing participation increased 8 percent from 2011, but hunting participation fell nearly 16 percent, losing nearly 2 million people and leaving 11.5 million hunters in 2016 — about 5 percent of the U.S. population. There was also a 29 percent decline in spending by hunters, dropping expenditures to $26 billion.
“Numbers are dropping and that’s not a good thing,” said Stephen Faust, a hunting guide and dog trainer from Statesville.
Faust said that’s because hunting is under attack across the country from animal rights groups. He said people are trying to make it more difficult for hunters to access public game lands by dedicating them to uses like wildlife watching, which makes it harder for them to find somewhere to hunt.
Faust, who has had a hunting license since 1985, said for him hunting isn’t about the killing or sport, but rather about spending time among wildlife and harvesting his own meals.
“There’s nothing really any more ‘eat local’ than harvesting your own proteins, and I’m all for that whether it’s a game animal, a game bird or a fish,” Faust said.
As for the criticism that Republicans are trying to rally voters, Faust said the amendment isn’t a partisan issue and he knows plenty of Democratic hunters who will also support it.
North Carolina has several restrictions on Sunday hunting. Faust said he would like to see those lifted, even though he grew up going to church every Sunday.
“I think it just boils down to a personal decision and if someone doesn’t want to go hunting on Sunday that’s fine, but if somebody wants to and that’s one of maybe his or her only days off in the week then I feel that shouldn’t be a law,” Faust said, noting that many states don’t have such regulations.
The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation is a member of the Sunday Hunting Coalition, which works to remove state restrictions on Sunday hunting wherever possible. However, Culclasure said the amendment would have no bearing on Sunday hunting restrictions.
Dexter Tart, a sportsman from Wake County, said that hunting should be seen as a right, not a privilege.
Tart said making hunting an official right would protect the hunting community against anti-hunting and fishing groups trying on the national and state levels to combat hunting.
“It gives us protections against that sort of emotional push from the far left that would have it another way,” Tart said.
Faust and Tart both mentioned the money that hunters contribute to state wildlife conservation and restoration. A federal law imposes an excise tax of 11 percent on sporting arms, ammunition and archery equipment and 10 percent on handguns. Money brought in by this tax provides funding for restoration of wild animal populations and their habitats. It also provides funding for hunter training programs and the maintenance of public game lands. In 2017 the NC Wildlife Resources Commission received a little over $16 million from the federal tax for state conservation projects.
“Anybody’s allowed to use public land like the game lands. You can go hiking on it, mountain biking, kayaking but the hunters are the ones paying for it,” Faust said.