Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness: Article I of the North Carolina constitution enshrines these rights as fundamental for the governance of the state’s citizens. The constitution also proclaims the sovereignty of the people — including their power to amend their founding document.
In November, North Carolina voters will choose whether to exercise that power to add the right to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife among the “great, general, and essential principles” of their constitution. If the amendment passes, the state will join 21 others, including all of the South save Florida, Maryland and West Virginia, in explicitly affirming this right. What changes should area sportspeople expect upon gaining this new constitutional protection?
“Nothing,” says Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson.
“I don’t think hunting and fishing is under attack, and therefore I don’t think the amendment is necessary,” McGrady continues. “It’s not harmful; I do think it probably reflects our values, and if it’s that important, putting it in the constitution is OK. It’s just not something that’s being put in, to my knowledge, to try to deal with some problem.”
Despite this blunt assessment, McGrady voted yes for Senate Bill 677, which added a referendum on the amendment to November’s ballot. He was joined by the majority of the legislative delegation representing Buncombe County residents, including Democratic Reps. John Ager and Brian Turner and Republican Sen. Chuck Edwards.
But two of his Democratic colleagues in the General Assembly from Western North Carolina — Rep. Susan Fisher and Sen. Terry Van Duyn — voted no on the bill out of skepticism regarding its true motives. “All we know is that this is a ballot initiative meant to draw a certain demographic that votes a certain way to the polls during an election where they may not have a dog in the fight,” says Van Duyn.
Van Duyn explains that she formed her opinion during the bill’s committee process. “Several of us asked, ‘What is the problem we’re trying to fix?’ And no one had an answer to that question,” she says. “There were bizzare responses like ‘they’re taking away the right for our free speech on college campuses’ or ‘they’re taking away the Second Amendment.’ That is not true.”
Instead, Van Duyn suggests, the amendment is part of a larger strategy for the current Republican supermajority in the state legislature to maintain control of government for the next decade. “They fundamentally understand that the legislatures that get elected in this election and the next will draw the next districts,” she says.
By introducing a referendum with broad appeal to their base — “Trump voters,” Van Duyn specifically mentions — party leaders may hope to attract otherwise unmotivated voters who will vote for state Republican candidates. Once elected, those lawmakers could help gerrymander advantageous districts for Republicans competing in future races.
All of the bill’s four sponsors are Republican senators: Danny Britt, R-Robeson; Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico; Tom McInnis, R-Richmond; and Tommy Tucker, R-Union. Of these legislators, only McInnis responded to multiple requests for comment. “A constitutional amendment is necessary to protect the heritage of hunting and fishing in our state because there are forces that lobby every day to restrict the right to hunt and fish,” he explained via email. Locally, Edwards did not respond to a request for comment.
McInnis did not mention any forces lobbying on behalf of the amendment, but its language echoes model legislation maintained by the National Rifle Association. Wording included verbatim from the NRA proposal includes: “Public hunting and fishing shall be a preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife”; and the two permitted areas of hunting regulation, to “promote wildlife conservation and management” and “preserve the future of hunting and fishing.”
A similar bill filed in 2016 failed to progress out of the state Senate’s committee for rules and operations. Fisher attributes the change in the current bill’s prospects to renewed Republican urgency for votes. “I really believe that the majority party is concerned about what voter turnout will be this fall,” she says. “They believe, as is prescribed to them by organizations like ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Virginia-based conservative think tank] that if they put these sort of enticements on the ballot, they’ll be able to bring out more people in November.”
Reps. Dennis Riddell, R-Alamance, and Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, North Carolina’s state chairs for ALEC, did not respond to requests for comment. Bill Meierling, ALEC executive vice president for external relations and strategic partnerships, says that his organization had no contact with state legislators regarding the amendment because it has no relevant model policy.
Turner, who voted for the bill, disagrees with Fisher and Van Duyn over the impact a referendum on hunting and fishing rights will have on November’s turnout. “I’m a Democrat. I hunt, I fish, and I support this,” he says. “Maybe it’s a turnout tool for folks like me.”
The Buncombe representative does acknowledge that the amendment’s passing will have little impact on the day-to-day efforts of sportspeople to carry out their activities, and he currently sees no specific threats. But language in the constitution, Turner hopes, will set a stricter standard for future efforts to change or regulate hunting and fishing.
“As a lifelong hunter and fisher, these sporting traditions are very important to me, and they’re very important to the area that I represent,” Turner explains. “This is one way to make sure they’re protected. It prevents changes that aren’t necessarily thought through from being rapidly pushed through.”
However, Turner has previously expressed worry about what might happen should the public vote no on the amendment at the ballot box. Speaking with Xpress in May, he said the referendum’s failure would “send a larger message across the state that hunting and fishing isn’t as well-regarded or as important as I believe it to be, or as I believe it to be at least in our community and out west.”
Ager did not address the broader political implications as he offered a more ambiguous assessment of the amendment. “There could be some unintended consequences in having it in the constitution, perhaps limiting oversight by Fish and Wildlife or protecting inhumane activities like trapping, but hopefully that is overblown criticism,” he says. “Also in general, I consider our constitution a sacred document that should be amended rarely, and it seems protecting hunting and fishing is a solution looking for a problem.”
But Ager also stands behind his yes vote as supporting “time-honored traditions” in WNC. Hunting and fishing, he says, provide not only sustenance but also sport and community for his family and others throughout the region.
Britt, Sanderson and McInnis mirrored those themes in a press statement released after passage of their bill. “These rights are deeply rooted in the culture of North Carolina, and that is what this amendment recognizes. We are confident that voters will agree,” they wrote.
Missing the mark
While legislators debate the merits of the amendment, local environmental leaders and regulators argue that the General Assembly has failed to address more basic concerns for the quality of outdoor sport. Ken Brame, political chair of the Sierra Club’s WENOCA chapter, notes consistently low funding levels for the Department of Environmental Quality and the Clean Water Management trust fund as an important oversight.
“We have too many places in this state where you can catch a fish, but it’s not safe to eat it,” Brame says, citing the discovery of GenX contaminants in Eastern North Carolina. “It certainly makes you a little bit cynical that they’re doing something like this [constitutional amendment].”
Although the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission hasn’t taken an official stance on the amendment, District 9 Commissioner Brad Stanback, who oversees the area including Buncombe County, agrees that habitat is the greatest limiting factor to the region’s hunting and fishing. As human populations increase and develop previously rural areas into urban environments, he says, wildlife is pressed into an ever-smaller range.
Stanback also points out that development has made hunting in particular less accessible to the general public. “Those opportunities are shrinking for people who don’t have the means to either own a lot of land themselves or lease land,” he says. Public game lands could offer an alternative if legislators chose to fund their expansion.
But the biggest threat to hunting, suggests Gary Peeples, public affairs officer for the Asheville office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is simply a lack of interest. National FWS data show that 11.5 million people went hunting in 2016, a decline of 2.2 million from the 13.7 million hunters in 2011. Hunting-related spending also fell by nearly $10 billion over the same period; although the number of anglers rose by 2.7 million, fishing-related spending increased by only $1.4 billion.
Less spending on hunting and fishing licenses and equipment, excise taxes from which are used to support state wildlife agencies, hurts the capacity of those agencies to manage wildlife habitats. “We currently don’t really have an alternative source of funding for those agencies that would replace the income,” Peeples says.
Options might include a license or user fee for other types of outdoor recreation on game lands, such as hiking and mountain biking, or a state excise tax on equipment to complement the national tax. However, Peeples says such alternatives have yet to be seriously discussed. “Another possibility is increased allocation from the General Assembly; I think that would be a tough sell,” he adds.
Peeples hopes that whatever the amendment’s impact on hunting and fishing rights, the publicity it brings to the issue will encourage more people to get outside. “Hunting and fishing have been primary ways that people have connected with the outdoors,” he says. “People who connect with the outdoors come to value the outdoors and work to be good stewards of it, and it would be a shame if we lost that connection.”