Do hunting and fishing in Utah need constitutional protection?

Rep. Carl Albrecht admits he got a little misty-eyed during a legislative hearing this year when a discussion about hunting reminded him of the time his daughter-in-law shot a record-breaking bull elk.

His son’s wife had worked up to the hunting trip — training for marathons, buying her own gear and practicing with her muzzleloader. And Albrecht said he was with her that day in 2014 when her years of effort paid off.

“That will be forever embellished in our family’s memories,” the Richfield Republican said, telling his legislative colleagues they could check out a replica of the animal in the Farmington Cabela’s store.

Albrecht was the second lawmaker brought close to tears that day, as the legislative committee considered a measure to enshrine the right to hunt and fish in the state’s constitution; Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, also choked up as he recalled time spent outdoors with his daughters.

Proponents of the hunting and fishing protections, which Utah voters are now considering on their ballots, say the change recognizes that these activities are a fundamental part of the state’s culture and still put food on some families' tables. More than 20 other states have put similar language in their founding documents in recent years, a move pushed by hunting groups and the National Rifle Association.

But on the other side of the debate over Amendment E are environmental groups and some lawmakers who argue that this constitutional guarantee is unnecessary and that any perceived threat to hunting and fishing in the state is hypothetical or imagined. And even those these outdoor activities are an integral part of Utah’s identity, they shouldn’t be elevated to the same status as the rights to speech or to bear arms, these critics argue.

“That is not to say that we should not protect hunting and fishing — we absolutely should,” Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne and Republican Rep. Marsha Judkins co-wrote in an argument against Amendment E. “But if we do not draw a line between rights that are fundamental and privileges that extend from those rights, we will no longer be able to tell the difference.”

Rep. Casey Snider, the Paradise Republican who spearheaded the proposal, said no one is trying to stop Utah’s hunters or anglers right now, but he believes the state should prepare for a future when these activities might come under attack. In a written argument for Amendment E, Snider and his Senate co-sponsor argued that special interests are trying to “whittle away at hunting” by restricting specific seasons, hunting methods and types of game.

“As people, I think, get more removed from where their food comes from,” he said, “the pressure to do away with [hunting and fishing] entirely increases.”

Snider noted that California has banned the hunting of mountain lions and leaves the management of the animals up to the state’s fish and wildlife department. By contrast, his constitutional amendment stipulates that public hunting and fishing “shall be the preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife."

That provision is of particular concern to environmental advocates, who worry it could prevent state officials from relying on the best available science when managing animal populations. Kirk Robinson of the Western Wildlife Conservancy says large, predatory species would suffer the most from the amendment because sport hunting often isn’t a useful tool for dealing with them.

“Frankly, the science doesn’t support the way these species are treated,” he said. “They are managed or controlled according to the mythologies of the Old West.”

The availability of food serves as an adequate population control for most predators, Robinson said. Now and then, a mountain lion might begin attacking livestock, but a hunt wouldn’t be the best option even in that scenario — odds are that the hunters would kill the wrong cougar, he said.

Colorado residents are now voting on a ballot initiative to reintroduce gray wolves to the western part of that state, Robinson noted, adding that they’ll likely wander across the border into Utah. Given the Trump administration’s move to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list, he wonders if Utah officials are laying the groundwork for hunting them with Amendment E.

But the notion that mountain lions or wolves will go on killing sprees is a vestige of the pioneer days and is not backed by research, Robinson said.

“To really summarize what’s wrong with Amendment E, is that potentially it would take away the science of conservation," he said.

Sportsmen’s groups are arguing the opposite, contending that hunters and anglers provide the funding that fuels conservation efforts. Most of the revenue for the state’s division of wildlife resources comes from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and permits, money that helps the agency restore Utah’s natural habitats, officials say.

And the number of people getting these licenses has been going up, according to state data that shows a year-over-year increase of 119% through September, largely driven by a sharp uptick in demand for fishing licenses.

“Basically, if you were to eliminate hunting ... you are going to severely restrict the ability of wildlife managers to do their jobs, to look out for wildlife,” said Mark Holyoak, spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The best wildlife management plans have involved hunters, who can implement broad strategies and provide valuable information to state officials, he added.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) does not typically adopt positions on proposed constitutional changes and has remained neutral on Amendment E. However, agency spokeswoman Faith Jolley said wildlife resources uses hunting and fishing to “ensure that healthy wildlife populations persist in Utah.”

“DWR will be able to continue managing the state’s wildlife populations and enforcement of applicable wildlife laws regardless of whether Amendment E passes,” Jolley said.

Vermont was the first state to recognize an inherent right to hunt and fish, writing the protections into its original constitution in 1777, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The constitutional provision was unique in the United States until the 1990s, when Alabama and Minnesota adopted it as part of their governing documents.

The National Rifle Association is among the groups advocating these protections and has offered model language for cementing hunting and fishing rights in state constitutions. The organization contends that the nation’s “sporting heritage is under attack like never before, by well-funded, national anti-hunting groups that want to ban all hunting, trapping and fishing.”

Robinson said he’s not aware of major efforts to end hunting and fishing, although there are groups trying to outlaw trapping, a tactic that some advocates regard as cruel. During a legislative hearing, Snider said he does intend for his proposed constitutional amendment to protect trapping.

Over the past three decades, about 20 states have passed hunting and fishing protections into their constitutions, including Idaho, Wyoming and North Dakota. Arizona and Colorado have rejected the idea.