A House committee began weighing hunters’ rights against voters’ rights Thursday as it fielded heated testimony over a proposed constitutional amendment to ban voter initiatives regulating wildlife and natural resources issues.
Hunting and wildlife groups said the amendment is needed to protect a way of life under attack by animal rights groups and residents looking less kindly at sports afield.
But an unlikely band of conservationists and voters’ rights advocates said the measure tampers with the equally sacred institution of the initiative process, in which voters have a direct hand in creating law. Among those speaking out against the resolution were the Idaho Farm Bureau, the John Birch Society, the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho.
Thursday’s hearing, which featured three hours of testimony from nearly 50 speakers before the House Resources and Conservation Committee, is only a first step.
If approved - a vote could come Monday - the measure still will need a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate and approval by popular vote.
In some ways, the danger of the popular vote - through initiatives - is what has proponents of House Joint Resolution 10 so eager to see the resolution approved.
The measure would bar initiatives from being used to “regulate access to, or any use of, wildlife and other natural resources.”
If approved, “science and objective reasoning” would instead be the sole criteria for governing natural resources issues, said lobbyist Russ Westerberg, “rather than the tentative mood of a changing electorate - a changing electorate aroused, confused and manipulated by the narrow, selfish focus of elite special interest groups.”
Westerberg spoke on behalf of the Idaho Sportsman’s Heritage Trust Fund, which sought House Speaker Mike Simpson’s sponsorship of the resolution. Westerberg also lobbies for several mining interests that stand to sleep more soundly if the resolution passes.
The amendment is aimed in the short term at stopping the Idaho Black Bear Initiative, which would ban the use of bait and dogs to hunt bears and would eliminate the spring bear-hunting season.
Don Clower, president of the Idaho Wildlife Council, said hunting groups are financially outgunned by proponents of such initiatives. While they can get a measure on the ballot for only $50,000, hunters who have faced similar measures in other states say it will cost up to $500,000 to defeat one.
But voters’ rights advocates questioned whether fighting the initiative process is the way to go.
“I find myself in the very awkward position basically of agreeing with Mr. Westerberg in everything but the solution,” said Mark Pollot, director of the Stewards Constitutional Law Center in Boise.
“The initiative process can be severely misused,” said Pollot, “but I submit so can the legislative process.”
In California, he said, legislators pass between 1,500 and 2,000 laws a year, many of which include clauses that even their sponsors do not know about.
“The initiative process at the very least puts the debate in the public arena, where people can come in, examine it, say what they need to say about it, get the information out and ultimately let folks decide,” Pollot said.
Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, has proposed legislation saying hunting and fishing can be limited only by statute or Idaho Fish and Game Commission rules. The bill is pending before the Senate Resources and Environment Committee.