We the People
By Matt Dunlap

During the debates on the adoption of the United States Constitution, the delegation from Pennsylvania proposed its own version of the Bill of Rights. Embedded prominently within that version was a proposal to protect the right to hunt.

“Here, gentlemen, you have exercised the full force of your genius!” mocked delegate Noah Webster in rebuttal to their proposal, published in December 1787. “Not even the all-important task of legislating for a world can restrain my laughter at this clause! As a supplement to that article of your bill of rights, I would suggest the following restriction:--“That Congress shall never restrain any inhabitant of America from eating and drinking, at seasonable times, or prevent his lying on his left side, in a long winter’s night, or even on his back when he is fatigued by lying on his right.”—This article is of just as much consequence as the 8th clause to your proposed bill of rights.”

Webster went on, in more measured tones, to delineate the differences between the American republic and the kingdoms of Europe, where all wild game was protected for use by royalty alone. Here, he argued, where game was held in common, hunting was as natural and necessary an activity as planting crops, drinking water, and breathing. It needed no constitutional protection.

But the Pennsylvania delegation may have been more visionary than Webster gave them credit for. Webster didn’t envision the emergence of animal-rights pressure groups dominating the national political landscape.

Still fresh in many Maine sportsmen’s minds is the effort nearly ten years ago to end bear hunting as we know it, an effort largely spearheaded by the political pressure group Humane Society of the United States (HSUS should not be confused with the American Humane Association, or any other group that actually runs shelters for stray pets). After qualifying a citizen initiative for the ballot that would have banned hunting bears with bait, hounds or traps, they poured money into a misleading ad campaign that eventually failed at the polls.

This last legislative session, there were plenty of rumblings that the HSUS was back in Maine. After retaining one of Augusta’s larger lobbying firms, legislation was submitted that was similar to the 2004 bear referendum. That bill went down to a predictable defeat before the legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, but then a group of lawmakers decided to take a stab at heading the threat of another bear referendum off at the pass. Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport and the House Republican floor leader, introduced an after-deadline bill after HSUS representatives made overtures to several outdoor organizations to either support the hounding and trapping ban legislation, or face a referendum identical to the 2004 measure. Fredette’s bill was LD 1303, a constitutional resolution protecting the right to hunt.

Effectively, the bill would have prohibited using citizen initiated legislation for amending wildlife management laws. The original draft of the legislation was enormously problematic, and as worded would have tossed out many legal precedents around trespass and landowner relations, licensing, bag limits, and hunting season statutes, among other effects yet unforeseen.

The committee went to work on the language, and under the leadership of committee chairs Sen. David Dutremble, D-Biddeford and Rep. Mike Shaw, D-Standish, boiled down the language to its simplest elements and included, in addition to the current prohibition of amending the Constitution by citizen initiative, language stating “and not an amendment to the laws of the State governing hunting and fishing that would limit hunting or fishing.”

But the tough part of selling the legislation was always convincing legislators that taking away the public’s ability to directly submit legislation by initiative was something worth considering. Politically, it cuts both ways. A wildlife referendum hurts Democrats in rural areas and Republicans in the suburbs and cities, so there were plenty of political reasons to support it on both sides of the aisle. In the early votes, the bill got broad approval. But then time came to send it to the voters for final approval, where it needed two-thirds support in both chambers.

The Humane Society of the United States lobbyists—and there were plenty of them, including the HSUS representative herself and about six others roaming the halls—howled about protecting voting rights. Of course, HSUS cares no more about voting rights than it does about animal shelters, but the arguments gained traction. In the end, the bill failed to gain the support it needed to move on to a vote in November.

I’ve long been an observer of elections in Maine, and have noticed something about Maine voters: they’re smart. They take their role as citizens seriously, and think about referenda proposals, bond issues, and constitutional questions just as seriously as they do candidates. They talk it over around water coolers, kitchen tables and coffee counters. When they go to the polls, they really try to do the right thing. I think at times legislators fail to give voters enough credit that way.

In 2004, they certainly stood up and supported sportsmen and the hallowed tradition of the Maine bear hunt. As it stands now, all indications are we’ll need their wisdom and support again. I just hope Webster was right.

Matt Dunlap is a sportsman from Old Town and is a former legislator. He is also a periodic host on Maine Outdoors, heard statewide every Sunday night at 7:00 pm on WVOM 103.9 FM and WVQM 101.3 FM.

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