Will Maine’s Constitution include a right to hunt?

Kerri Bickford Capitol two websiteProbably not. Last session the legislature rejected four Constitutional amendments submitted by sportsmen’s groups. Two would have prohibited citizen ballot initiatives on fisheries and wildlife issues. The other two sought to guarantee the right to hunt and fish. But a resolve was also enacted giving the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife an opportunity, this session, to create, “a bill concerning the protection of Maine’s outdoor heritage.”

This very general language gives the committee the authority to create legislation on any of the issues outlined above or anything else they can come up with protect our outdoor heritage. It’s really a great opportunity to look at everything, but so far, most of the talk has been focused on a Constitutional amendment to protect hunting.

Given that this was rejected by this same legislature just last year, I think it is doubtful that such an amendment can win the required 2/3 vote in both the House and Senate to get onto the ballot. And of course, if it did get on the ballot, then sportsmen will be faced with the difficult and very expensive task of raising enough money to convince the public that hunting should be protected in the Constitution. And there is another concern: the language that is currently being considered may not achieve what supporters hope.

The Inland Fisheries and Wildlife have had two very brief discussions about the resolve and the possibility of reviving a Constitutional amendment to protect hunting and fishing, something that SAM’s Dave Trahan is advocating for. Dave told me he’d be at the work session on this issue yesterday, to ask the committee for more time to research what other states have done and prepare new language that would be more effective than the language currently being discussed. But Dave wasn’t at the work session.

The committee scheduled another work session on this issue for next Tuesday, which could very well be their last on the issue unless something dramatic happens. The committee’s legal analyst, Curtis Bentley, informed the members yesterday that legislative rules prohibit them from reviving the same Constitutional amendment that was defeated last year, so if they want to move in this direction, they’ll need a new proposal and new language.

Banning Wildlife Ballot Measures

Two proposed Constitutional amendments, LDs 754 and 1084, that would amend the Maine Constitution to exclude wildlife issues from citizen initiatives were considered and later killed by the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee last year. At the public hearing on the two bills,  Representative Steve Wood of Greene, a Maine guide, who sponsored LD 754, testified that wildlife ballot measures allow, “for outside influences to discredit our experts, science, and facts that impact our established hunting and fishing laws, laws that have been established by the experts in this particular field of study.”

Representative Michelle Dunphy of Old Town, the sponsor of LD 1084, presented an interesting history of wildlife ballot measures, starting in 1936 with a proposal to overturn a law that required sportsmen to purchase an annual license to hunt or fish. That effort failed by a vote of 53.8 percent to 46.2 percent. This history raised a question that some VLA Committee members have asked me: are sportsmen willing to give up their own opportunities to change wildlife management decisions through the ballot box? Good question!

I worked on two of the wildlife management ballot campaigns that Michelle mentioned: In 1983 we defeated an attempt to stop the newly-established moose hunt, and in 2004 we defeated the HSUS ballot measure to ban bear hunting with bait and dogs and bear trapping. I also worked on a campaign in 1992 that placed the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in the Constitution and protected its revenue. That ballot measure got more votes than anything else on the ballot that year, demonstrating the public’s respect for and support of DIF&W.

And of course, the bear campaign was repeated with the same result in 2014. The sportsmen’s campaign in 2014 was managed by James Cote.

I believe if sportsmen are ever going to achieve a new Constitutional amendment that they ought to focus on a measure to eliminate ballot measures on wildlife management. And even that would be a major – and expensive – battle.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.