Western hunters debate ethics tooth and claw

  • Black bear

    Neal and Mary Jane Mishler
  • Don Clower of the Sportsmen+s Heritage Defense Fund - Steve Fischbach/Idaho Falls

  • Stewart Churchwell debates Idaho bear initiative - Steve Fischbach/Idaho Falls

 

Stew Churchwell considers hunting an important part of the "back to the land" lifestyle he leads near Challis, Idaho. If he doesn't get a deer or elk, "I'll be sentenced to beans for a whole year," he says.

He grew up in Oregon, where he hunted bear and raccoon with his father and the family's hounds. His 10th birthday present was a hound of his own. But hounding never sat well with him. He remembers the first time he saw his dogs attacking a raccoon.

"It was a heart-wrenching experience," he says. "I remember thinking, 'what are we doing here?' "

Churchwell now heads Idaho Sportsmen for Fair Hunting, a group of hunters who are working to pass Proposition 2, a ballot initiative that would outlaw bait and hounds in hunting black bear during the fall, and end the spring bear hunt entirely (HCN, 12/11/95).

He says the state Fish and Game Commission has considered the move in the past, but a small yet vocal group of hunters has kept the commission at bay.

"This is not a management issue," he says. "It's an issue of sportsmanship."

On the other side of the debate is Don Clower, another avid hunter and head of the Sportsmen's Heritage Defense Fund. "The animal-rights people are imposing their values on the people of Idaho and the rest of the U.S.," he warns. "They'll peck away at us, one little group at a time."

Clower, a hunters' education instructor and a member of a state committee on hunting practices, considers the spring bear hunt a good part of life in Idaho. He describes hound hunting as "some of the hardest hunting I've done in my life. There's nothing unethical about it."

Idaho isn't the only place this kind of drama is being played out. Voters in six other states will decide on hunting-related ballot initiatives next month. Most are aimed at tightening the strings on acceptable hunting methods. With only weeks left before the election, polls show that most races are close.

In Washington, I-655 would ban bear baiting, and stop hound hunting of bears, cougars, bobcats and lynx. In Colorado, Amendment 14 would outlaw trapping, snaring and poisoning animals in the state (see story below). Voters in Alaska, Michigan and Massachusetts face similar initiatives.

The old guard has reason to fear. Non-hunters have recently used such initiatives to their advantage.

In 1990, California voters banned the trophy hunting of mountain lions and set aside $30 million a year for habitat protection. A California initiative to repeal this ban failed in March. In 1992, Coloradans voted to outlaw baiting and hounding black bears, and end the spring bear hunt. In 1994, Arizona stopped certain types of trapping on private lands. The same year, Oregon voters banned bear baiting and hunting bears and mountain lions with dogs.

This year, Oregon hunters are fighting fire with fire.

"If the other guy is going to go after it emotionally, you've got to meet them head-on," says longtime hunter Greg Clapper. He is leading the fight for an initiative called Measure 34, which would give the state Fish and Wildlife Commission exclusive authority to manage wildlife and hunting policy. Led by a committee with the unwieldy but enthusiastic name "Don't Let The Wackos Get Away With The Lies This Time!," Clapper and his allies have showered the state with literature calling their opponents animal-rights fanatics and raising concerns about growing predator populations.

According to John Beecham, who plays a central role in bear management with the Idaho Fish and Game Department, the issue is not a crisis of ethics but a failure to use the system already in place. "Hunters are traditionally the main constituency for fish and game agencies," he says. "Non-hunters don't even know our commission exists. They don't know our system."

The solution, he says, is to draw the broader public into the decision-making process. "Hunters have resisted allowing others into the process," he says. "If we continue to force non-hunters to the ballot box to effect change, we're going to be faced with these initiatives every year."

Former HCN intern Greg Hanscom is a graduate student in Missoula, Montana.

Note: this article is part of a feature package on ballot initiatives that includes the following articles:

- Has big money doomed direct democracy?

- Polluted waters divide Oregon

- An 'unfair, inflexible' bid to clean Montana's water

- Will Idaho voters derail nuclear trains?

- Colorado voters decide fate of 3 million acres

- Western hunters debate ethics tooth and claw (this article)

... and in the print edition of this issue, an essay, "Should city slickers dictate to trappers?" appears as a sidebar to this article.

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