While we realize that not all of the votes have even been counted (and recounted) from Tuesday’s elections, it still seems appropriate to take a look at what transpired in some other states and think about its possible application to Michigan – that being, the Constitutional Right to Hunt and Fish. Since the issue is likely to be raised for discussion here in Michigan again, it is worth noting that Constitutional amendments to protect the right to hunt and fish were approved on election day 2012 in four more states. Kentucky, Nebraska, Idaho and Wyoming have now joined the 13 other states with similar constitutional language. Similar measures are now being proposed for Indiana in 2013 and Mississippi in 2014.
At face value, the idea always seems to energize many in Michigan’s outdoor community and has even been encouraged in the past by state legislators – it is literally a “red meat” issue. During a time when many fear that changing demographics and the perceived threat that animal rights groups will eventually put our ability to hunt, fish and trap at risk, the seeming permanency of such an approach continues to attract support here in Michigan. It remains our view, however, that the risks associated with such an effort are many, the benefits derived from its passage are likely to be few, and there is certainly no guarantee that it would be permanent.
First off, if there was a takeaway from this week’s elections it would be that the Michigan voters are resisting the proliferation of ballot initiatives and now seem less inclined to “clutter” the State Constitution with what seems trivial to most. On the plus side, this public resistance may discourage those legislators who have been hoping to “revisit” the constitutional protection currently enjoyed by the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.
Then, of course was there was the “2006 Massacre,” or, as it is more commonly referred to, Proposal 3 – the 2006 Michigan Dove Hunting Referendum. In a state where a conservation, pro-hunting or public recreation-related ballot proposal had never previously been defeated, this effort to remove Michigan’s 100-year mourning dove hunting ban lost by a margin of 69% to 31%. Ouch. The disparity was only eclipsed by the respective campaign fund-raising/spending which was also won by the dove defenders by a nearly four-to-one margin. The point being, if you can’t secure public support for a season involving a migratory bird which is hunted throughout most of the United States, good luck with the constitutional amendment for the right to hunt and fish.
We can also imagine the campaign which would be launched by the opponents. It is not uncommon for TV ads and videos to be produced which highlight incidents involving highly unethical hunter conduct, which in some cases have been staged or highly exaggerated. The damage that can be done to the public image of hunters and anglers resulting from such campaigns can be irreparable.
An additional word of caution shared by those from other states is to be careful of constitutional campaign proponents who discount polling data as well as the concerns of state and local conservation-sportsmen’s groups. The suggestion is that some advocates are motivated for reasons other than those which relate to the protection of hunting and fishing rights. They see such ballot measures as an opportunity to attract the “right kind of voter” to the polls for candidates or issues which may be unrelated to the issue at hand.
There is also the nagging question of what it might mean if you lose? Does it mean that we no longer have the right to hunt and fish in Michigan? There is a significant component in the current Michigan Hunter Education curriculum which reinforces the concept that hunting is a privilege which can be suspended or lost, depending on our conduct. This is a powerful message which may actually serve us better as hunters than would the perceived sense of security realized through a constitutional measure.
The issue becomes even more complicated when the subject of trapping is parceled away from the generic umbrella of hunting. Many trappers actually oppose constitutional initiatives for fear of sensationalist campaigns which may turn an otherwise generally neutral public against this legitimate means of wildlife management. In 2010, the constitutional amendment effort in Arizona elected to exclude trapping from their ballot proposal and it was still rejected by voters with 56.5% voting against it.
If all of this were not enough, constitutional ballot measures of this type frequently have the unintended consequence of helping to fund an opposition effort that may have organizational staying power where none had previously existed.
For states where such a constitutional ballot initiative is likely to pass by 70-30 margins, it may well be a fine idea. For Michigan, however, we should long remember the lessons from the dove referendum: get good polling data, estimate the cost of the campaign and then triple it, and don’t go forward unless you’re sure you will win.