When he introduced a bill this winter to enshrine the right to "hunt, fish, trap and harvest wild game" in Idaho's Constitution, Republican Rep. Marv Hagedorn faced a telling question.
What does it mean to "harvest" game? asked one Boise legislator.
After a brief, manly silence during which the hunters, farmers and gun owners in the room stifled their laughter, Hagedorn offered a quick definition.
In a state where hunting remains a rite of passage, Idaho's cities (and its Legislature) are increasingly filled with people unfamiliar with common hunting terms, let alone the setting of seasons, disposal of gut piles or proper care of weapons afield.
"Urban Idaho now has the majority population of the state," says Hagedorn, who grew up in a rural mill town. "People in the Treasure Valley (Boise) don't get it." The story is similar across the Rocky Mountain West, where the number of sportsmen declined 15 percent between 2001 and 2006.
Feeling harassed by animal rights groups, threatened by ballot initiatives, and increasingly competing for space outdoors with family hikers, many sportsmen would like to make hunting a constitutional right. But such amendments raise thorny political and legal questions and could even threaten hunting by undermining regulatory systems that protect wildlife from the rampant over-hunting of a century ago.
"In my opinion, we're trying to fix something that ain't broke," says former Idaho Department of Fish and Game director Steve Huffaker. "We've got the right to hunt and fish as long as we're willing to play by the rules and manage for the common good instead of the rights of the individual."
After a wave of anti-hunting ballot measures in the mid-1990s, including a successful bear-baiting and -hounding ban in Oregon in 1994 and one that failed in Idaho in 1996, about a dozen states began to look at ways to protect hunting and fishing -- including writing them into their constitutions -- in the face of changing public attitudes.
By 2005, the National Rifle Association was on board, working with sportsmen's groups to craft a model "right to hunt" amendment that would put hunting on a par with the right to bear arms. The NRA's version would allow states to adopt "reasonable" hunting regulations, protect traditional methods of hunting, including bow hunting, and declare hunting the preferred means of wildlife management, as opposed to contraception or government sharpshooters.
Darren LaSorte, the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action hunting policy manager, says that the term "reasonable" allows states to regulate hunting as they currently do while staving off opponents like the Humane Society.
"Unlike a lot of other things, people are truly trying to ban (hunting)," LaSorte says. "No one is trying to ban golfing, no one is trying to ban basket-weaving."
The NRA-led effort to define hunting as a constitutional right has divided hunters along familiar lines, pitting hunting groups with strong libertarian leanings against state wildlife agencies and hunter-conservationists. Opponents fear it would leave wildlife agencies open to attack from all sides. Poachers or out-of-state hunters could claim that the hunting right trumps state regulations that limit the number of deer hunters can shoot each year or cap out-of-state licenses. Or conservation groups could use the right to hunt to stop grazing, ATV use or even development where it might interfere with wild game. Worried that fishermen could demand more water in rivers, Idaho irrigators even insisted on an exemption from minimum stream flows.
Though at least 10 states now mention hunting rights in their constitutions, the amendments have yet to gain much traction in the West. Hagedorn, backed by the NRA and conservative hunting groups, did not get far with his own bill this year. Two slightly different versions found little support and were held in an Idaho legislative committee.
Bill McLean, an NRA member who, as chairman of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, helped kill a version in Arizona, says that the constitutional route could have limited his commission's ability to revoke hunting licenses -- taking away some of its independent authority to regulate wildlife and handing it over to partisan legislators.
Some Idaho and Arizona lawmakers sought a compromise, something less than a fundamental right. But the NRA is not interested in a watered-down version.
The NRA's involvement and its legislative push during a presidential election year lead some to see the "right to hunt" amendments as political litmus tests gauging support for the organization's agenda -- particularly in Western states where the threat to hunting is minimal.
"I once supported it because I support hunting and fishing," says Idaho Sen. David Langhorst, a Boise Democrat and vice president of the National Assembly of Sportsmen's Caucuses. But now he says the issue is being used as a wedge, much like abortion.
Montana skirted the politics in 2004, by voting to protect a "harvest heritage" in the state Constitution, rather than a fundamental "right to hunt."
Utah went a different route, making it more difficult to pass anti-hunting ballot measures by requiring a two-thirds majority on any constitutional amendment that relates to fish and game. Hagedorn is considering a similar measure for Idaho for next year.
Chris Marchion, past president of the Montana Wildlife Federation, believes hunting should remain a privilege -- one that is democratically allocated. Montana's hunting heritage amendment is meaningless, he says. "Any hunting activity is only going to be tolerated as long as the general public tolerates it. The best thing to do is to make sure that hunter behavior is good, that what we do is sustainable."
The author is an independent journalist in Boise. He publishes PaleoMedia.org.