Several state lawmakers want constitutional protection for Kentuckians' right to hunt and fish, although they acknowledge that no authority has threatened this right in anyone's memory.
A bill calling for a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment was prefiled for the 2011 General Assembly by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg; Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville; and Rep. John "Bam" Carney, R-Campbellsville. The legislature convenes Jan. 4.
"The citizens of Kentucky have the right to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife, including the use of traditional methods, subject only to statutes enacted by the legislature," the amendment would read, in part. "Public hunting and fishing shall be a preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife."
The measure reflects bipartisan concern in Frankfort following President Barack Obama's health care reform law and what some people see as overreaching by the federal government, Carney said. The right to own and use guns might be targeted by federal legislation in the future, he said.
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"We thought it was important that we make a statement here for states' rights," Carney said. "I don't see any imminent threat to our hunting rights at the moment. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say."
Stumbo denied that his participation in the bill is meant to reflect a protest of Obama.
"No, we're afraid the damn Republicans will ruin the economy again, and we'll all need to hunt and fish to survive," Stumbo retorted.
Stumbo spokesman Brian Wilkerson said Kentucky is simply joining other states that want to enact "a blanket protection" of hunting against any future restrictions.
"It's been part of a national movement," Wilkerson said. "Arkansas, South Carolina and Tennessee just voted for something similar in the November elections."
The bill is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist, intended for pandering to conservative voters, said Transylvania University political scientist Don Dugi.
"This has to be one of the silliest things I've heard in a long time," Dugi said.
"The national government, with the exception of treaties controlling international boundaries, has never taken a hand in hunting. It's always been a matter for the states," Dugi said. "This is making people feel like they're accomplishing something when, in fact, they're accomplishing nothing."
Although nobody has tried to outlaw hunting and fishing, the sports are on decline in Kentucky and elsewhere because of an aging population, more sedentary lifestyles, a loss of wild habitat and other causes.
Surveys by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tracked a drop in the number of Kentucky adults who hunt, fish or both, from 779,000 in 1996 to 670,000 in 2006. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife on Wednesday said it could not immediately produce data, but requests for hunting and fishing license have steadily dropped for years.
Hunting and fishing remain an important part of life in Eastern Kentucky, said Combs, the Pikeville lawmaker co-sponsoring the bill. Everyone she meets wants the constitution changed to specifically protect the right to hunt and fish, she said.
"When I talk about putting this out as a constitutional amendment and passing it, it gives everyone a certain comfort level," Combs said.