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Measure grants constitutional right to hunt, fish

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North Carolina voters will consider a referendum this November that, if approved, will enshrine the right to hunt and fish in the state constitution.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Saturday, July 7, 2018

North Carolina voters will decide this fall whether the state’s heritage of hunting and fishing should be enshrined in the state constitution.

“The right of the people to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife is a valued part of the state's heritage and shall be forever preserved for the public good,” reads the opening of the amendment proposed in Senate Bill 677. Lawmakers voted last week to put the amendment on the Nov. 6 general election ballot as a referendum.

The bill passed with bipartisan — though not unanimous — support, the General Assembly's website shows. Among those voting for the amendment were Republican lawmakers Sen. Bill Cook and Rep. Bob Steinburg. Area Democratic Rep. Howard Hunter III of Hertford County had excused absences for votes on the amendment, but wrote in an email Wednesday that he saw no harm in it.

If passed by the voters, the amendment would be a win for hunting and fishing groups, including the Eastern Carolina Houndsmen Alliance. In an interview Friday, alliance President Terry Morse said his organization has members throughout the state — including bear hunters in the western mountains — and it's endorsed the amendment as preserving a heritage that predates the state itself.

Asked why the amendment is necessary, given the wide popularity of hunting and fishing in the state, Morse suggested some animal rights and humane societies might seek to limit hunting in the future. He claims the amendment is a proactive step to not only protect hunting and fishing, but preserve them as conservation tools.

Would the amendment's guarantee of a right to hunt and fish force major changes to state laws and regulations, or otherwise have unintended consequences? Morse and other supporters say no.

The amendment's text specifically states the right to hunt and fish are subject to state laws and regulations to “promote wildlife conservation and management” and “preserve the future of fishing and hunting.”

The amendment also states it shall not “be construed to modify any provision of law relating to trespass, property rights, or eminent domain.”

Morse said the amendment preserves the authority of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to regulate hunting and fishing, including by setting annual limits on how many animals can be killed. That's important, because preserving the heritage of hunting and fishing requires maintaining game populations, he explained.

Similarly, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Executive Director Gordon Myers said Friday that the amendment would not change the commission's authority. He said the commission would also still have authority to ban hunting or fishing specific animals, if it determined their numbers were already too low.

Though the amendment preserves authority to regulate hunting and fishing for conservation, and to protect property rights, it does call at least one hunting regulation into question: restrictions on Sunday hunting. In deference to religious services, current state law restricts hunting on Sunday mornings, the use of hunting dogs, and hunting within 500 yards of a place of worship.

In an interview Thursday, Steinburg confirmed that lawmakers had debated, but apparently not settled, the question of how the amendment would affect Sunday hunting restrictions.

“That's one of those things that, if it's challenged in court, it will be interesting to see how it turns out,” Steinburg said.

Notably, the General Assembly's website shows that state Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, filed amendments to S677 that would have stipulated hunting rights were subject to laws and regulations relating to public safety and public peace, “including limitations on Sunday hunting.” The amendments also would have allowed hunting to be affected in “regulation of commercial activities.” Both amendments failed.

In supporting the amendment, Steinburg said he did so because it seeks to ensure that “extreme environmental groups” or liberal judges won’t wrongly infringe on rights to hunt and fish.

Cook also strongly supported the amendment in an email Thursday, noting it would “bring North Carolina in line with 21 other states that already guarantee this right in their constitutions.”

Cook also noted the amendment enjoys strong support from hunting-related groups, including the National Rifle Association, Delta Waterfowl, Safari Club International, the Eastern Carolina Houndsmen Alliance, and others.

Cook also said the most recent state data found sportsmen and women spent $2.3 billion on hunting and fishing in 2011, supporting more than 35,000 local jobs.

Contacted on Friday, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Sierra Club said the environmental group had not taken a position on the amendment yet. The club’s statewide leadership is still considering it, she said. 

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