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by Anne Paine
[Edited for length]
Tennessee voters this fall will be asked to decide whether hunting and fishing should be a constitutional right, a position already taken in 10 other states.
Advocates, including the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, say amending the state constitution will prevent radical animal rights activists and an increasingly urban state legislature from one day shutting down the activities.
But some hunters and non-hunters find the proposal perplexing, saying that hunting and fishing don't appear to be at risk in Tennessee.
"I think it's a tempest in a teapot to make it into a constitutional anything," said Fred Ziegler of Hurricane Mills, about 70 miles west of Nashville.
He's a longtime hunter with an array of trophy heads - from deer to antelope - on his wall. While he doesn't oppose the pursuit today, he has decided it's more sporting to photograph wildlife.
Hunting has been a hot-button topic in a few states, but Tennessee generally has not been one of them.
"We're trying to do something pro-active so we're not in a position like the people in Michigan when they outlawed dove season there," said Mike Butler, executive director of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, a conservation group.
Getting approval to put an amendment on a ballot is a complex, years-long legislative process, Butler said. "If you wait until you need it, the reality of being able to get it done would be pretty difficult."
Butler said he knew of no groups trying to ban hunting or fishing in the state, but the state legislature could pass a law to do so.
"The citizenry has no protection over what the General Assembly might do when it comes to hunting and fishing," he said.
"Times will change as they always do. These uses of the land and the resources need to be protected." An official with one of the nation's high-profile animal activist groups, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which opposes hunting, called such proposals "frivolous."
"All these amendments are a solution in search of a problem," said Ashley Byrne, a PETA official in New York. "If people have a right to hunt, why not a right to shop or golf?"
The issue comes as hunting is on the decline and more people are enjoying wildlife in a non-consumptive way, Byrne said.
A 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey showed the numbers of hunters dropped in five years, from 13 million to 12.5 million, while the number of people who traveled away from home to watch wildlife grew by about 5 percent, to almost 23 million.
"It brings up so many issues," Byrne said of the amendments. "It could lead to lawsuits by hunters and trappers who want longer hunting seasons. It could be expensive and time-consuming for the state."
Butler insists that the amendment would not affect regulations. "You'll still have to have a license," he said. "You'll still be subject to regulations. It doesn't allow for any trespassing. It will have no impact on private property rights."
State Rep. Janis Sontany, known for supporting tighter animal neglect and cruelty laws, said the constitutional amendment had been a passionate subject for some lawmakers.
"I've never thought there was any danger of people not being able to hunt, but there were some that felt very strongly that it was something we needed to do," she said.
The bill passed the state Senate unanimously in January and cleared the House in March with one dissenting vote, from Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis.
"It doesn't really give people the right to do something they don't already have a right to do," said Leighann McCollum, Tennessee director for the Humane Society of the United States.
The push for a constitutional amendment in Tennessee mirrors a national effort involving the National Rifle Association. Similar measures also are on the ballot in Arkansas, South Carolina and Arizona.
Tennessee's proposed amendment reads: "The citizens of this state shall have the personal right to hunt and fish, subject to reasonable regulations and restriction prescribed by law.
"The recognition of this right does not abrogate any private or public property rights, nor does it limit the state's power to regulate commercial activity. Traditional manners and means may be used to take non-threatened species."
James F. Blumstein, Vanderbilt University professor of constitutional and health law and policy, doesn't see the language as altering the situation as it exists today.
"I don't see how this changes anything," he said.
Larry Hillis, owner of Reloader's Bench, a guns and ammunition store in Mt. Juliet, said he thought the proposal was odd when he first heard about it.
But, after he understood from an advocate that the legislature could prohibit hunting and fishing, he grew more favorable. "On the face of it, I think it's a good idea," he said. "I would like to find out more about it before I jump up and down and say I'm for it."
Ziegler said he would support an amendment only if it also strengthened property rights to increase penalties for hunters who trespass. He said it's a problem in the countryside.
"If you really want this, postpone it, and get some strong legislation that really protects landowners," he said. "They pay a lot more in property taxes than hunters pay in licenses."