History teaches that the guys who hold the high ground are in the best position to win the battle. Hunters and anglers hold the moral high ground – our legacy of bona fide fish and wildlife conservation stands unmatched. But that won’t win the battles against our opponents in the anti-hunting lobby. To win we need to hold the political and legal high ground too.
We’re all too aware of the strategy by HSUS, PETA, Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and others to bar hunters and anglers from federal public lands. They peddle a mix of disinformation, junk science, and outright lies about hunting and fishing to convince lawmakers, and the public, that our traditions are out of date and have no place on the public domain.
The antis get political and legal traction because older federal land laws were written in an era when no one could conceive of animal rights radicals or anti-hunting activists. Hence, these laws rarely even mention hunting and fishing; and make no express provision for continuation of these activities.
One the primary strategies employed by the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance over the past 20 years has been to change federal laws to specifically ensure that fishing, hunting, and trapping shall be allowed to continue. To write plain legal language protecting our heritage that federal administrations or activist judges (in D.C., San Francisco, or New York) cannot ignore or disregard.
This approach first bore fruit in 1997 with enactment of the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act. For years HSUS regularly sued to bar hunting on the Refuge System (which includes over 550 units encompassing over 150 million acres of public land) claiming that “refuges” were “sanctuaries” and hunting had to be illegal. The problem was that the refuge laws – dating back to Teddy Roosevelt – never made it plain that hunting was allowed; Teddy and company never saw the need to take such legal precautions a century ago.
USSA partnered with the state fish and wildlife agencies to draft a bill specifying that hunting was not only allowed on refuge lands but that it had to be “facilitated” and was a designated “priority public use.” Since this language became law in 1997, lawsuits that claim that refuges cannot allow hunting have come to a halt, and record numbers of refuge units are now open to hunters.
The ink was barely dry on the 1997 Act when USSA turned its focus to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service lands. These are the two largest federal public land systems encompassing over 700 million acres and providing untold opportunities for anglers, hunters, and trappers. But like the old refuge laws, the statutes governing these lands did not make it plain that fishing and hunting were allowed and protected. We set out to correct that in 1998 by drafting the “Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights” to establish in law that BLM and Forest lands were open to hunting.
Initially, many in the sporting community saw no need to push this new legislation. We were told the bill was “a solution in search of a problem.” USSA maintained that viewpoint was terribly shortsighted. The time to build a strong defense is not when the barbarians are at the gate but long before they arrive. And knowing HSUS and company as we do, we knew the barbarian horde was not far away!
Over the past years, our partners in the hunting and fishing community came to appreciate the need to protect our heritage on BLM and Forest lands. And this long effort is finally bearing fruit. Recently a bipartisan group introduced H.R. 2834 (in the House) and S. 2066 (in the Senate) – the Recreational Fishing and Hunting Heritage and Opportunities Act.
The two bills clearly mandate that BLM and Forest lands are open to fishing, hunting, and shooting unless and until those activities are closed or restricted; and that closures and restrictions must be necessary and required by sound science and evidence. Otherwise, the lands stay open – period. USSA was pleased to work with the American Sportfishing Association, NRA, NSSF, SCI, CSF and the state fish and wildlife agencies to put these bills together and get them introduced.
In March, H.R. 2834 was folded into a broader sportsmen’s bill – H.R. 4089. This newer bill protects and keeps open BLM and Forest lands while also fixing other problems including protections for traditional ammunition and fishing gear and polar bear trophy imports. Our community is working in tandem to get this bill passed in the House – with a large bipartisan majority – to help persuade the Senate that it also needs to approve the measure. Enactment of the BLM and Forest provisions will spell out, in law, that fishing and hunting have a legitimate place and are priority public uses on over 850 million acres of Refuge, BLM and Forest lands held and managed by the federal government.
With these kinds of legal protections in place, anglers and hunters will be dug in on the legal hilltop ready to repel attacks from HSUS, PETA , ALDF, and company. That’s our strategy.