Hunters, activists have many states in cross hairs

Md. animal-rights groups join in national fight

October 24, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

As Maryland gears up to allow its first bear hunt in 51 years tomorrow, not without controversy, hunting advocates and animal-rights activists are engaged in contests over hunting rights across the country.

In New Jersey, for example, the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance filed a lawsuit this month to force the state to resume bear hunting.

The state had allowed its first black bear hunt in three decades last fall, permitting hunters to shoot 328 animals despite protests from activists.

Then state officials discovered they had greatly overestimated the bear population, prompting the activists to howl and the state to cancel this year's hunt.

At war are the Columbus, Ohio-based Sportsmen's Alliance, and a tag team of the Humane Society of the United States and the Fund for Animals, both based in Maryland. The latter two groups filed a lawsuit to try to block Maryland's bear hunt.

The two sides spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year trying to extend or restrict hunting rights.

The clashes this hunting season are not only in Maryland and New Jersey but also in Maine and Alaska, where ballot initiatives Nov. 2 would prohibit the use of bait in bear hunting.

Animal-rights activists have succeeded in the past in passing some referendums banning cruel practices such as cockfighting, says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. But the hunting lobby has won the majority of battles since the 1970s, he said.

"There are a lot of animal lovers out there, and the Humane Society sometimes succeeds - but only when it doesn't conflict with the hunters," Sabato said. "Hunting is a very powerful political issue."

Doves, wolves, cougars

Battles between the groups have raged over mourning dove hunting in Ohio, snare traps for wolves in Alaska, the hunting of bears and cougars with hounds in Oregon and Washington, and traps for bears and other animals in Colorado.

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said his 50-year-old Gaithersburg-based organization has 8 million members, a staff of 300 and an annual budget of $84 million. It has succeeded in helping to pass about two-thirds of 24 ballot measures to restrict hunting proposed in 15 states since 1990.

Even though the society failed in its lawsuit to prevent bear hunting in Maryland, Pacelle said, it succeeded in banning trapping in Washington, Arizona and Massachusetts; and barring mourning dove hunting in New York and Iowa.

`Inhumane' hunting

"What we are trying to do is curb the most inhumane and unsporting forms of hunting," Pacelle said. "Our opponents [at the Sportsmen's Alliance] are just a trade group for arms manufacturers, bowhunting manufacturers, who try to pretend they are wildlife managers and wrap themselves in science. It's nonsense."

Rob Sexton, vice president for government affairs at the 26-year-old U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance - which has a $2.5 million annual budget and 15 employees - concedes that his group sometimes loses ballot initiatives, but said his group has won all but one of 15 courtroom battles it has fought since 1977.

He noted their legal efforts have helped to allow black bear hunting to continue in California, and moose hunting to continue in Vermont, among other victories.

Sexton acknowledged that his organization receives money from gun manufacturers. But he said most of its money comes from 1.2 million members around the country who feel strongly about protecting their right to hunt.

"The Humane Society's mission is to shut down hunting completely, and they exploit the emotions of people who don't know much about hunting," Sexton said. "We believe hunting is a wholesome activity."

Injunction refused

Representatives for both sides were in the courtroom last Monday when Prince George's County Circuit Judge Thomas P. Smith refused the Humane Society's request for an injunction to halt the bear hunt scheduled to begin tomorrow in Western Maryland.

Animal-rights activists are planning to protest outside the State House in Annapolis at 7:30 p.m. today.

The two sides are expected to clash again this fall in New Jersey as the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance pursues its lawsuit to force a bear hunt Dec. 6-11.

A state game management committee approved by the governor scheduled a hunt for December, but a review of last year's hunt found that the state had fewer than half as many bears - perhaps 1,500 instead of 3,000 - as officials thought before they authorized the hunt, said Peter Boger, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

No licenses

So state environmental commissioner Bradley M. Campbell has refused to process licenses for this year's hunt.

In Maine, the Humane Society and Sportsmen's Alliance have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ad campaigns for and against a referendum Nov. 2 that would ban the use of bait, hounds and traps in black bear hunting.

"There is a lot of financial backing for both sides coming in from out-of-state groups," said Randy Cross, a manager at the Maine Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"I don't think well of anybody coming in from out of state and trying to tell us how to manage our bears because that's our job."

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