News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Indiana Legislature

March 9, 2014

Changed wording to SJR-9 delays debate on right to hunt, fish

INDIANAPOLIS — A much-debated ban on same-sex marriage wasn’t the only proposed constitutional amendment to get knocked off of this November’s ballot. Gone, too, is the less contentious proposal to protect Hoosiers’ right to hunt and fish.

Backers of the measure say enshrining the right to “hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife” in Indiana’s Constitution will protect the state’s heritage from animal rights and anti-hunting activists. Without it, they fear, future generations of sportsmen will see limits on hunting seasons, more restrictions on hunting weapons and increased protections for prey.

“There are people that don’t believe you ought to hunt or fish,” said Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, a longtime champion of the cause. “We need protection from them.”

But similar to the fate of the same-sex marriage amendment, a change to the hunting and fishing resolution’s language – removing a phrase covering the right to farm – postpones any public vote until at least 2016.

As falling support and rising court challenges create doubts about the future of the marriage amendment, supporters of Senate Joint Resolution 9 – the hunting and fishing amendment – predict success in the next legislative session.

“This thing has passed with a lot of support in the past, and it will again,” said Steele.

At least 17 states have guaranteed the right to hunt and fish in their constitutions, with all but one of those measures passed since 1996 with support from hunting and gun advocacy groups. Backers in Indiana include the National Rifle Association and Protect the Harvest, an organization founded by Forrest Lucas, owner of Lucas Oil.

Opponents of the amendment say it addresses a threat that doesn’t exist.

“We think it’s unnecessary,” said Erin Huang, state director of the Humane Society of the United States. “Those rights aren’t under attack.”

The Humane Society is a target of criticism from the amendment’s advocates. Steele says the organization is quietly working to undermine hunting and fishing rights – a charge the organization denies.

“They’d like you to think this is a manufactured crisis,” said Steele, an avid hunter. “But if I were a virus and I wanted to kill the world, the way I would want you to believe is that I didn’t exist. That way you’d never wash your hands, you’d never do anything to prevent me.”

“I’m just trying to inoculate us,” he added.

Huang’s response: “We’ve never taken any measures to end traditional hunting.”

The organization has, however, worked to shut down Indiana’s high-fenced hunting preserves, which charge hunters for the chance to shoot deer confined inside the fences. A lawsuit challenging the legality of Indiana’s five preserves is pending.

The Humane Society has also supported Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller’s crackdown on puppy mills.

Huang says these positions aren’t radical. “We’re very mainstream,” Huang said.

The General Assembly has been wrangling with the proposed hunting and fishing amendment since 1998, when now-retired Goshen lawmaker John Ulmer first proposed it. Ulmer was inspired by efforts he’d seen in other states.

“I’ve hunted all my life, and I’ve hunted all over the world,” Ulmer said. “I thought, this is something I could get behind.”  

Dozens of legislators were willing to sign on as co-sponsors to the measure, but it didn’t go anywhere that session.

It stayed stalled until 2005, when both legislative chambers passed it. But it needed to be passed again by a separate Legislature before it could go to voters – a requirement for any constitutional amendment to get on the ballot in Indiana. The measure failed the next time it was up in 2007.

It returned in 2011 with new language that sought to protect the right “to engage in the agricultural or commercial production of meat, fish, poultry, or dairy products.” That version passed, though rules for amending the Indiana Constitution require the Legislature to twice pass identical language.

Earlier this year, lobbyists representing farmers pulled their support after opponents, lead by the Hoosier Environmental Council, argued the amendment would prevent future laws protecting private landowners and regulations limiting factory farms and puppy mills.

Steele reluctantly pulled the farming language, blaming agricultural interests as gutless. “I told them to grow some horns because they’re going to get run around the pasture, and there’s no language that’s going to mollify the opposition,” he said at the time.

A newly worded resolution – minus the farming language – starts the process anew. The exact language contained in Senate Joint Resolution 9 will have to be passed by the next elected General Assembly before it can go before voters.

In theory, the same fate awaits House Joint Resolution 3, which would amend the state Constitution to lock in a state law that currently bans same-sex unions.  In 2012, the Legislature passed an amendment banning both same-sex marriage and civil unions. It dropped the civil union language this year, restarting the process.

A lawsuit filed Friday – challenging the constitutionality of Indiana’s law that bans same-sex marriage – could end that process.

Opponents of Indiana’s right to hunt and fish amendment wish it would also go away, too.

“You don’t just amend the constitution on a whim,” Huang said. “It’s a sacred document. Amending it should be reserved for issues we’re really worried about.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI, the Tribune-Star’s parent company. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

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