Politics & Government

Kentucky voters to consider amending constitution to protect hunting rights

Kentucky voters will be asked Nov. 6 to consider a constitutional amendment that would protect their right to hunt and fish. Not that anyone is challenging their right to hunt and fish.

But the politically powerful National Rifle Association isn't taking chances. The NRA says that "anti-hunting extremists" in the future could convince the Kentucky legislature to outlaw or restrict hunting and fishing, perhaps as part of an animal-rights agenda. So the NRA last year urged lawmakers to put a state constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot that would establish Kentuckians' right to "harvest wildlife." Lawmakers obliged.

"Are you in favor of amending the Kentucky constitution to state that the citizens of Kentucky have the personal right to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife, subject to laws and regulations that promote conservation and preserve the future of hunting and fishing?" the ballot question asks, in part.

The NRA is pushing similar hunting and fishing amendments this fall in Idaho, Nebraska and Wyoming. A dozen states already have approved them.

"The NRA doesn't wait for problems to arise to address them," NRA spokeswoman Stephanie Samford said. "We're constantly being proactive on our Second Amendment rights."

At present, nobody is lobbying the General Assembly to ban hunting or fishing, including the Humane Society of the United States, a leading animal-rights group that calls Kentucky's proposed amendment "inconsequential and merely window dressing."

Given the serious problems that are facing Kentucky, the amendment is "a wasted effort," said Don Dugi, a political scientist at Transylvania University in Lexington.

"There is no threat that this amendment would remedy," Dugi said. "This is occurring in a number of states, and it's sponsored by groups like the NRA to solidify their political position. It could be that, by making this a guarantee, they're hoping to get some tenuous protection against gun control, if anyone were ever to attempt that here."

But lawmakers who sponsored the amendment insist that it's serious business.

"There's always a concern that someone could work to take away your right to hunt using firearms," said state Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville. She added: "It does seem unlikely."

Actually, fewer Kentuckians are stepping into woods with a rifle or into streams with a rod, although it's unrelated to animal-rights lobbying.

Surveys by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are tracking a general decline in the number of Kentuckians who hunt, fish or both, from 779,000 in 1996 to 643,000 in 2011. Experts say this is due to loss of wildlife habitat to development, the cost of equipment and a younger generation with more sedentary hobbies.

Combs said hunting and fishing remain popular in rural Eastern Kentucky. And the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources is trying to protect land from development by establishing wildlife recreation areas, she said. Last year, the agency told lawmakers that it owned as much as 145,000 acres across Kentucky and hoped to buy more.

Kentucky outdoorsmen groups say they support the amendment, pointing to other states that have restricted forms of hunting. California, for example, passed a law this year that banned "hounding," or using dogs to chase down bears and bobcats for trophy hunting. Kentucky could be the next battleground, the groups say.

"Unfortunately, you have to look far out into the future to determine what steps you can take today that will protect our rights tomorrow," said Mark Nethery, president of the League of Kentucky Sportsmen.

The proposed amendment will be the only one on this year's ballot. Kentuckians have amended their state constitution 40 times since approving it in 1891. They have rejected 38 proposed amendments.

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