WASHINGTON D.C.––Why are ranking U.S. Senate Democrats seemingly hellbent on passing the “Sportsmen’s Act,” S. 2363, despite the opposition of more than 100 usually pro-Democratic animal and environmental protection charities?
“To give a couple of southern Democrats––lead sponsor Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas––a political talking point as they campaign in the rural areas of their states,” alleged Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle in a July 7, 2014 alert to HSUS supporters.
That appears to be the short answer.
The long answer is that the Democratic Party is still smarting, albeit largely unawares, over the 1952 loss of the U.S. presidency to gung-ho hunter Dwight D. Eisenhower. Posing often with hunting weapons, Eisenhower won by a landslide over reputed pro-animal candidate Adlai Stevenson, after nonhunters Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman had held the White House for 20 years.
S. 2363 rolls into a single omnibus bill eight pieces of legislation which earlier were introduced separately. Five give special privileges to hunters and hunter recruitment efforts. Three are apportionment bills, funding ongoing federal programs.
The giveaway bills include the Permanent Electronic Duck Stamp Act, the Hunting, Fishing & Recreation Shooting Protection Act, the Target Practice & Marksmanship Training Support Act, the Polar Bear Conservation & Fairness Act, and the Recreational Fishing & Hunting Heritage Opportunities Act.
The apportionment bills are the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act Reauthorization, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act Reauthorization, and the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation Reauthorization.
“S. 2363, the so-called ‘Sportsmen’s Act,’ has three particularly odious elements to it,” assessed Pacelle, calling it “a giveaway to the extreme wing of the Washington trophy hunting lobby. “One provision would roll back the Marine Mammal Protection Act and provide a sweetheart deal to help 41 polar bear trophy hunters import the heads of rare polar bears they shot in Canada. This,” Pacelle said, is “just the latest in a series of import allowances for polar bear hunters. It encourages hunters to kill rare species around the world and wait for a congressional waiver to bring in their trophies.
“A second provision of the bill would allow sport hunters and trappers priority use in wilderness areas,” Pacelle continued. “We’re talking here about more than 100 million acres with this change in management priorities––subordinating wilderness values, prioritizing wildlife trapping, and all the misery that comes along with it for animals.
“Finally,” Pacelle said, “the bill would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating lead ammunition. Lead is a known toxic metal,” Pacelle reminded, “that threatens hunters who consume wild animals and also threatens wild animals who incidentally consume prey with lead. Lead poisoning is known to be the leading cause of death for endangered California condors. Each year, an estimated 10 to 20 million birds and other animals––from more than 130 species––die from lead poisoning, either by ingesting lead shot or fragments directly, or by feeding on prey contaminated with fragments of lead ammunition.
“President George H.W. Bush required non-lead ammunition for all waterfowl hunting in 1991,” Pacelle said, “and for more than two decades hunters have used it for duck and goose hunting. Countless hunters have readily made the switch to steel, copper, bismuth, and other forms of less toxic ammunition.” California in 2013 passed legislation requiring a phase-out of lead ammunition. The U.S. Army is reportedly already phasing out lead ammo.
The National Rifle Association, National Shooting Sports Federation, and U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance nonetheless remain adamantly opposed to further restrictions on lead shot, in opposition to HSUS, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, who on June 14, 2014 jointly asked the U.S. Department of the Interior to ban lead shot from 160 million acres of federal lands managed by the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Throwing a bone to the hunting lobby
Pacelle called S. 2363 “a purely political act for vulnerable Democrats, to throw a bone to the extremist segment of the trophy hunting lobby.”
North Carolina Democratic U.S. Senator Kay Hagan incorporated into S. 2363 many of the ideas that her predecessor John Edwards in 2007 incorporated into a proposed Hunting & Fishing Bill of Rights and Responsibilities that would give hunters vastly more access to federal land.
But such ploys scarcely originated with Edwards. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton, boosting the unsuccessful effort of then-U.S. vice president Al Gore to succeed him, opened more National Wildlife Refuges to hunting than any previous president. By the end of the Clinton administration, 311 of the 540 National Wildlife Refuges allowed hunting and 280 allowed trapping, even as 78% of U.S. voters continued to believe that both hunting and trapping were still illegal within national refuges, according to a 1999 survey by Decision Research Inc. (Currently 321 of 553 National Wildlife Refuges allow hunting.)
Unclear at a glance, however, is why either Edwards, Hagan, Clinton, or any other politician remains convinced that pandering to hunters is necessary to win elections.
Nearly every form of hunting and fishing has been in steep decline for more than 30 years, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service data. The total number of hunters is now falling at 1% per year, and is expected to fall even faster as the Baby Boom generation passes the age range in which hunters most avidly participate. The 12.5 million hunters in the U.S. constitute just 4.2% of the U.S. population. The estimated 20.4 million illegal drug users constitute 8.3%, according to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration. Even if only half of the illegal drug users go to the polls, vote-hungry candidates might just as well seek the support of pot-puffers, crackheads, speed freaks, and heroin addicts as continue to court hunters.
Eisenhower vs. the American Humane Association
It is axiomatic today that the stretch drive of any political campaign will coincide with hunting season, since election day is always the first Tuesday of November, and that close races for seats in Congress and state legislatures may be decided by whether hunters stop to cast ballots en route to or from trying to kill animals.
But this current political perspective had yet to evolve in 1952. Sent to press ahead of the November 1952 election, the December 1952 edition of the American Humane Association membership magazine featured a denunciation of hunting entitled Lust To Kill, by one Jonathan Fieldston. Fieldston pointed out that of the 20 million hunters then active, among a U.S. population of half the present size, only 13 million were licensed.
“The reasons that hunting as a sport should be abolished from our civilization are two,” Fieldston wrote. One reason, he explained, is that “Hunters are inflicting unspeakable agonies upon living creatures––unnecessarily.” The other was that, “Because this cruelty is propagandized as a sport, it distorts moral judgement, and corrupts the public conscience.”
After Eisenhower’s landslide triumph, the AHA––then and since 1877 the only U.S. national humane organization––would never again take such an unequivocal position against hunting. Yet Fieldston’s commentary was not at odds with public opinon, even in culturally conservative Missouri. Fifteen years earlier, in December 1937, St. Louis resident Lloyd E. Holderfield shot a red-tailed hawk, which was then entirely legal, and took the remains to the offices of the St. Louis Star-Times to pose for a photograph.
Then as now, many newspapers routinely published photos of local hunters with their trophies––but not the Star-Times. The Star-Times published a multi-paragraph editorial denunciation of the shooting.
From inception the AHA opposed hunting and the practice of parents giving boys toy guns to play with. The child protection division of the AHA pointed out in 1937 that one school for the blind then housed more than 300 children who had been blinded by pellet gun accidents, an injury toll of a magnitude almost incomprehensible today.
Throughout World War II, the AHA on the one hand supported the war effort, against opponents whose inhumane behavior toward fellow humans was already infamous, and continued to warn at every opportunity against treating killing of either animals or humans as play. The AHA policymakers accurately anticipated, unfortunately, that one consequence of the war training a generation of men to use firearms and kill without hesitation might be a post-war proliferation of hunters, and of politicians catering to hunters’ interests.
Dwight D. Eisenhower realized the AHA apprehension by openly shooting ducks, easily weathering editorial criticism from many leading newspapers to become perhaps the most consistently popular president of the 20th century.
Post-Eisenhower, both Democratic and Republican office holders have mostly favored hunting. Before 1990, polls found little difference in hunter preference between the major parties and the voting patterns of other men in the same age group, region, and income bracket. Since both parties promoted hunter interests, hunting did not become an election-changing political wedge issue.
But that changed after then-Yale University undergraduate Wayne Pacelle introduced British-style hunt sabotage in response to a 1986 deer cull at the Yale/New Haven Forest. Hired by the Fund for Animals in 1989, Pacelle directed dozens of hunt sabotages around the U.S. during the next several years, but had abandoned hunt sabotage as a counter-productive tactic by 1994, when he joined HSUS as vice president for legislation.
But Republican strategists had already found in hunt sabotage the issue they needed to capture hunter votes as a block. In 1986 only two states had anti-hunter harassment laws. By 1994, when the Republicans won control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 42 years, for the first time claiming the overwhelming majority of hunter votes, 48 states had anti-hunter harassment laws, and Hawaii later passed one. Almost all of the anti-hunter harassment laws were introduced by Republicans, often working from drafts distributed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, founded in 1973 by longtime conservative strategist Paul Weyrich.
The coalitions formed to pass anti-hunter harassment legislation kept going, funded by national pro-hunting and pro-Republican foundations. The aroused pro-hunting lobby went on to pass “right to hunt” amendments to 16 state constitutions, with more such amendments introduced in each legislative session.
There are now far more vegans and vegetarians in the U.S. than hunters, but vegans and vegetarians are relatively concentrated in about half a dozen major metropolitan areas, overlapping perhaps a dozen mostly coastal states, which are seldom in political sway. No politician needs to cater to vegetarians and vegans as a key “swing” constituency.
Hunters by contrast are broadly distributed throughout the conservative rural and semi-rural “red” states which form the base of the Republican constituency. The combined human populations of six of the most strongly pro-hunting states amount to less than the human populations of the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas, yet those six states have 12 U.S. Senators, while the entire state of California has just two.
In addition, among the states with the most hunters per capita are the “swing” states of Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, where Democrats must win to hold their present slim majority within the Senate.
Thus Elmer Fudd continues to find dancing partners among U.S. Senate Democrats.