BOISE, Idaho — Voters heading to the polls on Tuesday will have an opportunity to amend the Idaho Constitution to preserve in perpetuity the right to hunt, fish and trap in the state.
The ballot measure known as HJR2 was approved overwhelmingly in the 2012 Legislature, supported by Republicans and Democrats alike in both chambers.
If approved, Idaho would join 13 other states that have already added similar constitutional language designed to protect the right to hunt and fish, though only five have extended the same protections to trapping.
Across the state, hunting and fishing are immensely popular across the age and economic spectrum. They are also activities that generate millions of dollars annually in revenue from the sale of permits and licenses, equipment, lodging and meals. But they are also activities some see as at risk to changing societal attitudes or the agendas of animal rights activists.
“Things like our ability to hunt or fish or trap are being threatened every day in every state of the union,” said Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, who shepherded HJR2 through the legislative process.
For Heider, the evidence of efforts to curtail hunting and outdoor activities in general is impossible to ignore. Take the case, he said, of the California Fish and Game Commission President who was ousted earlier this year amid public outcry because he came to Idaho and legally bagged a cougar, a species protected from hunters in California.
“When will those views begin having influence here?” Heider said. “We live here in Idaho because we like the outdoors … and all this does is protects for future generations that ability to go out and hunt and fish or trap.”
But the notion of preserving hunting, fish and trapping in the constitution has also drawn jeers and concern from a coalition of critics who oppose trapping or believe it’s a misuse of the constitution.
Hailey resident Greg Moore, the founder of Vote No on HJR2, says his group has no qualms with hunting and fishing. But he argues it’s inappropriate to use the constitution to protect trapping, an activity that has been subject to changing public attitudes in recent decades. The group has attracted volunteers and donors who consider trapping an inhumane and unsportsmanlike method for killing animals.
But Moore claims the group’s opposition is more nuanced and focused on giving trapping the ultimate in legal protection.
“We’re not about trying to prohibit trapping,” said Moore, whose group collected more than $31,700, outpacing the $3,400 raised by a group set up to promote HJR2. “We just think that the use of trapping in the future should remain open to debate.”
Trapping is hardly as popular as it once was in Idaho and now it’s a niche activity done more by hobbyists than the kind of trappers that once made a living selling pelts. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game issues about 1,700 trapping permits per year. The agency also allows trapping as part of its plan to manage the state’s wolf population.
David Adler, constitutional scholar and director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State, argues that documents like the Idaho Constitution or the U.S. Constitution aren’t intended to protect activities that benefit only a few.
“The constitution should be reserved for the protection of fundamental rights … and we don’t try to lard them up with activities enjoyed by only a few,” Adler said. “I think it’s better to leave the resolution of competing views on trapping to the legislative process.”
Adler and others also wonder if HJR2, if approved, opens the doors to judicial interpretation a series of thorny legal questions.
For example, Adler and other question if the right to hunt will give rise to lawsuits challenging the need to pay for a hunting tag or honor seasons, bag limits and other restrictions set by Fish and Game.
But the Idaho Attorney General’s Office believes the wording in HJR2 firmly establishes the ability of Fish and Game to manage and regulate hunting, fishing and trapping. The amendment also has the support of the Idaho Fish and Game Commission.
Specifically, the wording of HJR2 states hunting, fishing and trapping “shall be forever preserved for the people and managed through the laws, rules and proclamations of the state.”
In an opinion delivered to lawmakers in February, Deputy Attorney General Steven Strack said the addition of “managed” means judges will likely conclude that HJR2 is not intended to prevent the Legislature and state agencies from managing hunting, fishing and trapping.