The Hunting Collective

Midterm Elections 2018: A Tough Decision for Hunters and Anglers

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Check out this TheMeatEater.com exclusive podcast between Steven Rinella and Ben O’Brien for an in-depth discussion on the midterm elections. 

If those of us who love to hunt and fish were to build the perfect politician, you would think it would be a fairly straightforward exercise. We all need access, healthy ecosystems, plentiful wildlife, and the right to bear arms, rods, and bows. We need to protect our traditions while also letting the non-hunters in on what we do outside.

With the 2018 midterm elections approaching and partisan politics dominating the national conversation, we know voting won’t be anywhere close to that simple. All hunters and anglers lead different lives with complex perspectives and varying experiences that produce different outlooks on critical issues. Your faith, occupation, and even the best school district for your children will come into play at the ballot box. But let’s set reality aside for a moment and take the view that we’re all just focused on the outdoors and nothing else.

From the perspective of a hunter and angler, the perfect politician doesn’t exist. In general, we get a lot of support on hunter’s rights and gun rights from Republicans. With some notable exceptions, we tend to get our protections for habitat, clean air, and clean water from the Democrats. For instance, Utah Congressman Rob Bishop doesn’t entertain legislation coming from animal rights activists, but he’s openly hostile to federally managed public lands. Conversely, New Jersey’s new Governor, Phil Murphy, is openly hostile to hunters yet he’ll probably go on to rack up a decent environmental record. (An irony about Murphy is that, by reducing hunting opportunities and license sales, he’s crippling the primary funding mechanism for fish and wildlife management.)  As an outdoorsman or woman, you need to weigh out a bunch of conflicting views from politicians and then make a judgment on who’s best equipped to handle the most pressing needs, even though it’ll inevitably cost you something. It’s a game of case-by-case decisions, or putting out fires. In Utah, that might mean supporting a politician who’s friendly toward the federally managed public lands where the vast majority of western hunters and anglers pursue their passions. In New Jersey, it would mean getting a new governor as soon as possible.

That’s why voting on Nov. 6 will be an entangled mess for some folks. The challenge of connecting the important issues with your values and your values with the right candidate has rarely been tougher. It’s nothing new in the political arena, but there is an increasing amount of pandering to sift through as you make your choice this year. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the issues, so here’s a rundown of the big picture.

Public Lands & Access
Public lands are trending right now. The hunting and fishing community has a heightened sensibility around any threat of land transfer, and rightly so. This is a decidedly Western issue, though, as most of America’s public land lies in states on that side of the Mississippi River. In the East, public lands are relatively scarce, which means that the overall acreage is low enough that it doesn’t hinder general management in any particular state. Still, that doesn’t mean that the East isn’t dealing with battles of its own. Connecticuters, for example, will vote on an amendment that makes it more difficult for state lands to be sold without resident input. If “yes” wins, there will be a required public hearing for any proposed transfer of state lands.

Head out West and in states like Utah and Nevada the federal government owns the majority of the land—66.5 percent in Utah and 81 percent in Nevada—which gives Congressman Bishop and colleagues like Utah Senator Mike Lee a reason to argue that economic activity is hindered by the fact that all that acreage is controlled by Washington D.C.

In 2016, the Republican Party addressed the topic in their official platform, saying “Congress should reconsider whether parts of the federal government’s landholdings and control of water in the West could be better used for ranching, mining, or forestry through private ownership.”

Look no further for an example of such legislation than Sen. Lee’s proposed New Homestead Act. Supporters of the New Homestead Act want to see federal debt reduced by selling public assets to private entities. It would mean things like government buildings, real estate, and mineral rights could leave federal control, going to the highest bidder. Thankfully, the act hasn’t gathered much steam, but President Trump did promise to sell mineral rights with the intention of paying down debt.

This debate has become obviously rather thorny over the last few years, but it’s key to understand that the movement to keep public lands public requires not only preservation of federal control, but funding for federal management agencies to maintain the health of these important ecosystems and make sure hunters and anglers have access to them.

In that regard, before you vote, check out where your candidate stands on The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which expired on September 30. The program had been around for over a half-century, funding public lands at a federal, state, and local level. No taxpayer dollars are used, as it lives off a small portion of revenue from offshore oil and gas royalty payments. In just a month, it’s estimated that over $73 million has been lost that would otherwise go to our public places. This has always been a strong bipartisan issue, affecting everyone who enjoys national parks, wildlife refuges, battlefields, historic sites, city parks, and more. To learn more about those working to save the LWCF, checkout the LWCF Coalition

Habitat
Habitat is possibly the single most important issue for hunters and anglers. Habitat means healthy wildlife populations and that makes for equally healthy ecosystems. These days, that’s what we should all be after.

As Democrats tend to be bullish on environmental issues, it can seem that they’re the leading party on this issue. That very well may be, but be sure to do the proper investigation before assuming.

Either way, the overall question here is simple: How do you vote habitat?

The answer: the Farm Bill. Every five years, Congress passes legislation that sets policy on national agriculture, nutrition, and forestry. This is known as the Farm Bill, and it’s the largest single federal source of funding for private land conservation. Like the LWCF, it expired on September 30th and has yet to be reauthorized. It’s crucial Congress gets the bill finished as landowners are held up trying to plan for the future, but those working on the legislation don’t believe it’s close.

Some success stories from the last Farm Bill include Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, Healthy Forest Reserve, Forest Legacy Program, and Community Forests. Each works to protect high-priority grasslands, wetlands, and forests with matching funds to conservation partners to make the federal dollar go further.

Wildlife Management
Wildlife management is another sticky situation, but it’s also a topic that rarely rises to a national level with most of the management controversies being state and local in nature.

The single wildlife management issue that is becoming of national importance is chronic wasting disease (CWD). It’s spreading across North America, and so too is awareness. During the 115th Congress, there were three bills addressing the disease. All of them supported the control, management, and study of CWD, with sponsors from both parties. One of them was Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), who introduced a bill that would fund state research to the tune of $60 million. That legislation is currently stalled. Interest in the subject is obvious, as prominent states with CWD like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are represented among the other sponsors and cosponsors.

CWD hasn’t forced many politicians to take a stance on the subject, but that will likely change in the coming years. Not only does the disease effect wild game, but it’s also going to cause more problems with those in the agricultural industry.

A more divided issue is the protection of grizzly bears in the lower 48. Recently the control of grizzlies was transferred from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to state agencies in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Wyoming and Idaho felt the scientific data showed their populations could support limited hunting and created a season that was set to open this year. However, the season was blocked by Montana Judge Dana Christensen, who said the state “failed to make a reasoned decision” when considering the data. Judge Christensen has been in office since 2011 when he was appointed by Barack Obama.

Some of the strongest supporters of the season included the National Rifle Association (NRA), Independent Cattlemen of Wyoming, and Western Bear Foundation. Some of the loudest opposition came from The Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and Center for Biological Diversity.

Gun Control
Speaking of the NRA, you can’t mention policy and legislation without talking about gun control or the lack thereof. This issue divides us in so many ways, but for hunters it’s one that most can agree on. We like our guns.

The biggest problem here is that the NRA supports a large number of Republican congressmen and these folks can sometimes be predisposed to political stances that go against federal control of public lands, not to mention sound management of wildlife populations and their habitats.

Just six years ago, the NRA made campaign contributions to 30 Democratic House candidates, but in 2018 that number fell to just three.

The NRA isn’t shy about that support, showing it with their annual rankings where candidates receive a letter grade based on NRA friendliness. All 71 candidates who received an “A” are Republican, while 32 of 34 who received an “F” are Democrat.

For those who received poor grades from the NRA, the gun control stances are nuanced. It’s worth looking into how individual candidates define “common sense” gun control, as it can encompass topics like background checks, redefining assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and silencers.

As for concealed carry, all 50 states currently have laws allowing for individuals to carry concealed firearms in public. It’s been a tug of war, though, to see which side can strengthen or relax concealed carry laws. Notably, Republicans have been trying to push a piece of legislation through Congress that would treat concealed carry like driver’s licenses, allowing holders to carry in all 50 states with a permit from their home state. The act has had little to no Democratic support. Another example of the very partisan divide when it comes to guns.

Guns are a hot topic, so are public lands. It’s damn complicated. But regardless of where you stand on any and all of these issues, it’s clear that they matter. So  go vote and make your voice heard.

Words by Ben O’Brien. Spencer Neuharth contributed to this article.