Kansas voters will head to Election Day polls next week to cast decisions in the white-hot presidential race, legislative face-offs and judicial retention contests.
But they will face another choice: Should the state constitution include a right to hunt and fish?
The constitutional amendment hasn’t drawn the same level of attention as other races, yet supporters and opponents are battling all the same. No public polling on support for the measure appears available, but it passed the Legislature by an overwhelming margin.
Voters will decide whether to add a provision to the Kansas Constitution enshrining the right to hunt, fish and trap — subject to reasonable laws and regulations that promote wildlife conservation and management. The amendment also states that public hunting and fishing would be a preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife.
If passed, the amendment would effectively change nothing — at least not immediately. The Kansas Department for Wildlife, Parks and Tourism has said all current laws and regulations would still apply.
Amendment supporters say future potential threats to hunting and fishing drive the need for the change.
“We want to make sure we protect the ability of hunters and fishermen and others to practice their sports and we believe that’s really the best way to continue our conservation efforts. I don’t believe the constitutional amendment will limit those efforts in any way,” Moriah Day, chairman of the Kansas State Rifle Association PAC, said.
Day referred to anti-hunting efforts in other states, and said the Humane Society of the United States is behind some of the opposition that other places have seen. He called the amendment “proactive” and said it will protect rights without limiting the state’s ability to have meaningful laws and regulations for conservation.
Midge Grinstead, the Kansas state director of the Humane Society of the United States, said the wildlife department already does an excellent job in regulating appropriately. The constitution is supposed to represent everyone, she said, but the amendment only speaks to a subset.
“Not every Kansan hunts, fishes or traps. It’s geared toward a certain group, a specialized group, and that’s not what our constitution is for, by any means,” Grinstead said.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states have constitutional provisions guaranteeing the right to hunt and fish. Vermont’s language dates to 1777; the guarantees in the other 18 states have passed since 1996. California and Rhode Island have language in their constitutions guaranteeing the right to fish, but not to hunt.
Indiana voters also will decide Nov. 8 whether to amend its constitution to include the right to hunt and fish. Missouri and at least five other states introduced legislation on this issue in 2016, but those measures didn’t pass.
The Kansas amendment began as a resolution introduced in 2015 by Rep. Adam Lusker, D-Frontenac, and Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, R-Palco. Couture-Lovelady later resigned to become a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association.
Lawmakers put up very little opposition this spring to the resolution. It easily garnered the two-thirds support needed, passing the House 117-7 and clearing the Senate in a unanimous vote.
The resolution, which put the amendment on the ballot, had the support of the wildlife department during legislative debate. The agency’s chief legal counsel, Chris Tymeson, before a House committee questioned whether delaying a constitutional proposal would make passing one more difficult in the future, given a declining number of hunters, anglers and trappers nationally.
“To begin, this issue could potentially serve as a rallying cry for anti-hunting, fishing and trapping groups to create a cohesive group where one does not currently exist in Kansas and polarize individuals who are currently indifferent to hunting, fishing or trapping,” Tymeson said.
“Additional opposition may come from individuals who view this as a firearms issue. Failure of such an amendment to pass may also be viewed as an endorsement of anti-hunting, fishing and trapping agendas.”
Grinstead said she wasn’t surprised by the legislative vote margin in favor of the amendment. Public pressure by the gun lobby may have played a role, she indicated.
“I hope leveler heads will prevail, but I think the way they presented it — ‘the right to hunt’ — makes it seem like somebody’s taking away our rights and we’re not going to be able to do this anymore and that’s simply not true,” Grinstead said.
The Audubon of Kansas, which promotes conservation, remains neutral on the amendment. Director Ron Klataske said in a statement, however, that the amendment doesn’t address the greatest threat to the future of hunting and fishing, which he pegged as habitat loss.
Kansas has lost more than a million acres of grassland habitat over the past 10 years, Klataske said. Grasslands and woodlands important for game and non-game species continue are converted to agricultural production, he said.
“Regardless of whether the amendment is approved by voters or not, Audubon of Kansas hopes it will be used to draw more attention to the greatest threats to hunting and fishing,” Klataske said. “We need to work together to reverse the loss of wildlife habitat and obtain protection of instream flows in our rivers and streams.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.