Right to bear arms, fishing poles to be determined at polls


On Nov. 3, four days before 700,000 or so Texans head afield for the opening of the state’s general white-tailed deer hunting season and smack in the middle of arguably the best couple of months of the year for the state’s nearly 2 million saltwater and freshwater anglers, Texas will have what amounts to a referendum on the value it places on such outdoor pursuits and, ultimately, the state’s wildlife and fish resources.

When voters go to the polls two weeks from this Tuesday, they’ll have the opportunity to vote for or against a proposal that would designate hunting and fishing, as practiced under rules and regulations designed to manage and conserve the state’s natural resources, to be an individual right enshrined in the Texas Constitution.

Proposition 6 on the statewide ballot of seven proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution reads: “The constitutional amendment recognizing the right of the people to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife subject to laws that promote wildlife conservation.”

If voters approve Proposition 6, Article 1 of Texas’ Constitution, the document’s Bill Of Rights that includes such inviolate guarantees as freedom of religion, equal protection under the law, right to trial by a jury and the right of Texans to access and use the public beaches, would see this language added:

“The people have the right to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife, including by the use of traditional methods, subject to laws or regulations to conserve and manage wildlife and preserve the future of hunting and fishing.

“Hunting and fishing are preferred methods of managing and controlling wildlife.

“This section does not affect any provision of law relating to trespass, property rights, or eminent domain.

“This section does not affect the power of the legislature to authorize a municipality to regulate the discharge of a weapon in a populated area in the interest of public safety.”

Approval of the proposal would make Texas the 21st state to include the right to fish and the 19th to incorporate the right to hunt as a part of the state’s constitution. Texas would be following a path that began in 1777, when Vermont became the first state to declare, through its constitution, that participating in fishing or hunting is a legal right of its citizens. Currently, constitutions of 18 states list hunting and fishing as citizen’s rights, and two states – California and Rhode Island – guaranteed the right to fish.

Elevating participation in hunting and fishing in Texas from its current status as a government-regulated privilege (like driving a motor vehicle) to a right (albeit a right subject to government oversight; think voter ID laws) might, to some, seem a bit extreme if not wholly unnecessary. This is, after all, Texas, where participation in hunting and fishing are crucial parts of the state’s social, cultural and economic fabric, and almost wholly fund and fuel management, enhancement and protection of the state’s wildlife and fisheries resources and the increasingly shrinking and fractured habitat upon which those resources depend for survival.

And these outdoor activities are huge in Texas. Almost 3 million Texans hunt and/or fish, spending $4.1 billion a year on their recreation, generating 65,000 jobs and pumping more than $415 million in tax revenue into state and local government coffers.

A proactive step

But the importance of hunting and fishing is much larger and more important than just numbers and dollars. The state’s wildlife and fisheries resources – all of them, from game and fish species harvested by hunters and anglers to non-game wildlife such as shorebirds, freshwater mussels, songbirds, dolphins, lizards, frogs and scores of endangered and threatened wildlife and fish – depend on the efforts of anglers and hunters to survive. Almost without exception, public and private conservation programs funded, and often personally undertaken, by anglers and hunters are responsible for the continued existence of wildlife and fish habitat.

It is not a stretch to say that without hunting and fishing – without the money and efforts of hunters and anglers – Texas’ wildlife and fisheries would wither. Certainly, no other constituency has stepped up to support wildlife and fisheries conservation at anything approaching the level of the anglers and hunters. And the hunting and fishing communities in Texas are strong and thriving.

So, why does Texas need to take the step of making hunting and fishing constitutionally protected activities, especially when the language of constitutional amendment would make no changes in current hunting or fishing laws or how such laws are developed or enforced?

Call it a proactive step, aimed at heading off, or at least placing a serious legal roadblock in the way of what proponents of the amendment see as a real threat from groups opposed to recreational fishing and hunting.

These groups, pushing public policy agendas and legislation that would restrict or outright prohibit hunting and fishing, have had relatively little success in the past. But with Texas’ burgeoning urban population increasingly uninformed/misinformed/apathetic concerning wildlife resources, lacking any understanding of the role anglers and hunters play in maintaining these resources or in the social, cultural and economic value of these outdoors pursuits, the concern is that those Texans could be mislead into supporting anti-hunting, anti-fishing agendas.

This is not paranoia.

Today, a majority of Texans mistakenly believe wildlife such as white-tailed deer are the private property of landowners. They aren’t; native wildlife is a commonly held natural resource belonging to all Texans. And the majority wrongly believe wildlife and fisheries management, conservation programs and habitat protection and enhancement are funded by general tax revenue. It’s not; hunter and anglers almost wholly fund wildlife and fisheries programs.

And Texans have only to look at places such as Australia, where waterfowl hunting has been banned in three states and pushes are afoot to ban it nationwide; Costa Rica and Kenya, where all hunting is prohibited; or, closer to home, in states such as Michigan where dove hunting was banned.

While the prospect of bans on hunting or fishing seem unlikely to gain much traction in Texas, having the activities designated as right would present a significant legal hurdle for any such attempt when it inevitably comes.

Overwhelming support

The proposal to allow Texans to decide if they want to add hunting and fishing to Texan’s list of constitutionally protected rights was overwhelmingly supported by the Texas Legislature. The resolution that put Proposition 6 on the Nov. 3 ballot, SJR 22 introduced by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, passed the Texas Senate by a 27-3 vote with the Texas House of Representatives voting 111-1 to send the proposed amendment to the state’s voters.

The proposed amendment has generated overwhelming support from a wide range of groups, including the Texas Farm Bureau and more than 30 conservation/hunting/fishing/environmental organizations, among them Coastal Conservation Association, Wildlife Habitat Federation, National Wild Turkey Federation, Saltwater-Fisheries Enhancement Association, Texas Farm Bureau and Ducks Unlimited, the nation’s premier wetlands habitat conservation/enhancement organization. Perhaps just as enlightening, no wildlife or fisheries conservation or environmental organization has voiced opposition to Proposition 6.

But none of that really matters. What matters is what the majority of Texans who vote in the upcoming statewide election think of elevating participation in hunting or fishing from a privilege to a constitutionally guaranteed right.

Their decision could say a lot about the future of Texas’ outdoors heritage and the natural resources on which that heritage depends.