The Hocus Pocus of Ballot Box Biology

Posted on April 20, 2005

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When anti-hunters take wildlife management away from trained professionals, what we`re left with is an illusion.
by David Hart

Things didn`t look good for Ohio`s dove hunters back in 1997.

The anti-hunting forces were on a mission to put the state`s dove season up for a popular vote. It was a season that went through some major battles in the past, but one that appeared to be headed for defeat at the hands of the animal "rights" forces. Within months, the Save the Doves Committee, a coalition of national and local anti-hunting groups, gathered 340,000 signatures from registered voters, nearly one-third more than was required by state law to put the issue on the next ballot.

"The poll we took prior to our campaign to fight this ballot initiative came to something like 56-to-23 in favor of eliminating the existing dove season. We were way down in the polls and it looked pretty discouraging on the surface," said Rob Sexton, vice president of government affairs for the United States Sportsmen`s Alliance (USSA).

Virtually every issue that puts hunting or wildlife management issues in the hands of the public starts out with hunters up against the ropes. NRA`s Institute For Legislative Action has spent millions of dollars over the years to make sure voters are aware of exactly what is at stake when they go to polls. Maine bear hunters were down 30 points only months prior to an election last year that would have eliminated bear trapping and hunting with hounds and bait. George Smith, executive director of Sportsman`s Alliance of Maine, says the groups attempting to ban current bear management practices grossly underestimated the strength of the state`s sportsmen.

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Management by popular vote has not only turned into an effective way for anti-hunting organizations to eliminate specific types of hunting--bears over bait, for instance--or a broad-brush management practice like trapping, it has become a standard part of their arsenal. The trouble with ballot initiatives, says Susan Recce, is that it takes management decisions out of the hands of trained wildlife professionals and places them at the will of the general public.

"Ballot box biology, as I call it, is not the best way to manage wildlife. It should be left up to professional biologists," says Recce, director of NRA-ILA`s Conservation, Wildlife and Natural Resources Division. "The antis are running a campaign based entirely on the emotions of people who may be smart but aren`t necessarily informed about the science of a particular issue."

She points to a ban on leg-hold and body-gripping traps in Massachusetts as a perfect example. The 1996 initiative, called Question One, passed by a 64-to-36 margin, a pretty resounding defeat for biology. Within a few years, many of the same people who voted to ban trapping saw the direct results of their decision in the form of flooded basements, washed out roads and other problems associated with an explosion in the statewide beaver population.

In 1996, the number of beavers in Massachusetts was estimated at about 24,000 animals; today, it is triple that amount, and complaints have gone up in equal numbers, says Tom O`Shea, assistant director of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

"There have been several attempts to overturn the ban in the state legislature, but so far, none have gone anywhere. But the bill was amended to allow the use of prohibited devices through an emergency permit process for public health and safety issues," he says.

The problem with the trapping ban, adds O`Shea, is that it robs the agency of important data that helped biologists understand the impact of trapping on the population as a whole. Now they can only guess.

An Effective Method Ballot initiatives to overturn specific hunting seasons or to ban specific types of traps aren`t a new phenomenon. The first one, a 1977 effort by animal "rights" groups to ban trapping in Ohio, was defeated handily by voters by a 26 percent margin. The next attempt to manage wildlife by popular vote was also rejected when Oregon voters said "no" to a ballot initiative that would have also banned trapping.

Maine sportsmen won a victory in 1980 when a proposal to ban moose hunting was rejected by voters. Then, Proposition 117, an outright ban on all types of mountain lion hunting, was passed by California voters. With that victory came a new breath of life for the ballot initiative process. It also served as a wake-up call for sportsmen. All told, there have been 28 ballot initiatives that would have affected wildlife management in one way or another. Hunters prevailed in 13 of the initiatives, or 46 percent.

"Once they get an issue on the ballot, they then target urban and suburban voters who just don`t know anything about wildlife management or the real agendas of these groups."

Few professional wildlife biologists would argue that ballot initiatives that hand management decisions over to the whims of the voting public are good. California has seen a steady increase in the number of human/lion encounters, including three fatalities, since the ban. According to California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) data, there were 674 reported incidents involving lions in 2004, up from 456 in 2001. An average of nine mountain lions has been killed each of the last four years by CDFG personnel for public safety reasons. Even more telling, 105 cats have been killed on depredation permits since the ban was instituted in 1991.

An effort to overturn Proposition 117 and reinstitute a regulated hunting season failed in 1996 by a 42-to-58 margin. Ironically, there were four lion attacks in the two years prior to that election--two of them fatal. Sexton says sportsmen failed to win that proposition only because they couldn`t unify and raise enough funds necessary to stave off attacks by the antis.

Recce and Sexton agree that managing hunting by popular vote is a trend that will likely continue as anti-hunting advocates see it as an effective way to eliminate various forms of wildlife management. Recce, however, wonders if the anti-hunters will move away from the ballot box and focus more on the courtroom. Although animal "rightists" won some pretty major victories in the 2000 elections--one would have banned all wildlife issues from popular vote in Alaska--they lost the last two, both bear hunting issues. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Fund For Animals spent a combined $1 million in their attempt to eliminate bear management practices in Maine.

"They are very expensive to run for both sides," Reece said. "Although they have a large sum of money at their disposal, they might be more willing to put their money into litigation."

Some states have made the ballot initiative process a little tougher, not just for issues related to wildlife, but for all types of legislation by popular vote. Oregon, Florida and Idaho have tightened conditions for placing an issue on the ballot. Still, some attempts to either increase requirements for ballot initiatives pertaining to wildlife management, or to ban them completely, have failed in Arizona and Alaska.

The Ballot Process Ohio dove hunting came to a popular vote after a measure introduced by a state legislator to overturn the season failed. The antis wouldn`t take no for an answer, so they went on the offensive and started gathering signatures.

Sexton says the Ohio dove issue, along with many other signature-gathering campaigns, are aided by professional companies that use cheap labor to canvass neighborhoods. In order for an issue to be placed on a ballot, most states require a minimum number of signatures, often a percentage of registered voters. But instead of targeting liberal strongholds like urban and suburban neighborhoods, they typically have to gather a percentage of their numbers from, at least in Ohio`s case, half the counties in the state.

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"Once they get an issue on the ballot, they then target urban and suburban voters who just don`t know anything about wildlife management or the real agendas of these groups," explained Sexton.

Smith, a former political consultant and lobbyist, says anti-hunters used a single video of a bear in a trap in virtually every commercial they aired in an attempt to appeal to those with no understanding of the natural world.

"They might have won if they just went after trapping, but they lumped hunting methods into their ballot initiative," he adds.

The Road To Victory Hunters win at the polls through a combination of several ingredients. The most important is money, agree Recce and Sexton. It takes a large war chest to fund advertisements in newspapers and on television, two of the most important media for getting a message out. That money, however, has to come from the grassroots level, although many national groups do contribute as much as they can.

Smith says his group received money from 14,000 different donors, 65 percent from within the state. The NRA also contributed through the Ballot Issues Coalition, a compendium of national conservation and shooting groups bonded to defeat these threats to our hunting heritage. Ohio dove hunters not only rallied their own troops, they had the financial and moral support of sportsmen from numerous other states. Fresh from their own victory over a ballot initiative to ban certain types of bear hunting in their state, the Michigan Bear Hunters Association kicked in $10,000 to help defeat the campaign to ban dove hunting. At the peak of the fundraising effort, sportsmen were hand-delivering paper bags with large sums of cash and checks to USSA`s home office, recalls Sexton.

"Sportsmen won through a campaign that exposed the underlying motives of these groups."

"We were really humming along. This was one of the best-run campaigns I`ve ever seen," says Sexton. "We had over 300,000 contributions from individuals and all kinds of support from various sportsmen`s groups. We held raffles, and there were fundraising banquets all over the state. One banquet was attended by 1,500 people. We even got a lot of support from Ohio`s Amish community. It was really impressive."

He figured pro-hunting groups needed to raise $2.3 million to successfully defeat the ballot initiative; they raised $2.6 million. The money was doled out in such a way that it affected the largest number of voters who generally didn`t know the first thing about hunting, the anti-hunting movement or the ultimate goal of such groups as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (peta), HSUS and Fund For Animals. Sportsmen won through a campaign that exposed the underlying motives of these groups.

"Doves don`t eat people and they don`t spread disease. We didn`t focus so much on defending dove hunting as much as we shed light on what these groups think about farming, medical research and how all these issues were connected," Sexton said.

The television ads in Ohio`s dove hunting campaign targeted major cities and the surrounding suburbs--the very places where most voters live and, by far, where the highest percentage of people unfamiliar with the anti-hunting movement live. Sportsman`s Alliance of Maine followed a similar path to defeat the bear hunting ban. The entire $1.5 million raised was put into television ads that appealed to voters on a common-sense level. The commercials offered some insight into the effect of bear hunting on the state`s economy--$30 million and rising--but they also used professionals intimately familiar with Maine`s bears.

"Many of our ads featured the state`s top bear biologist who explained in very specific terms why bear hunting was an essential management tool. Fortunately, our governor was opposed to the ballot measure, and he made sure our wildlife department was directly involved in the campaign to defeat it," says Smith. "We also had very wide-spread support from all types of sportsmen`s groups, even fishing organizations. Everyone involved saw it as a threat not just to our bear hunting heritage, but to hunting and fishing in general."

In the weeks leading up to the election, NRA sent notices to members about the bear issue, urging them to vote. Although bear hunters--and all Maine sportsmen--won by a 3 percent margin, Smith says they got trounced in the suburban and urban regions, a strong indication of how rural hunters heeded the call of the NRA and other groups to go to the polls.

Smith adds that the ballot initiative in Maine not only served as a wake-up call to all hunters and anglers, it helped unify individual groups and the state`s sportsmen as a whole. That broad-based support was vital for a win and it will be required wherever the next attempt to outlaw hunting by popular vote takes place. It could be your state.

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