Derek Holloway and Jason Graham never needed a law to tell them they had the right to hunt or fish, something Graham calls a “part of life” in Tennessee.
But both say they favor a proposed amendment to formally establish those rights in the state constitution.
Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press -- Derek Holloway casts a line into the Tennessee River beneath the C.B. Robinson Bridge. Holloway and friend Jason Graham spent the afternoon fishing.
Though millions of people in the tri-state region hunt and fish, the activities aren’t as popular as they once were, figures show, and some worry that the long-presumed right could one day be taken away.
Tennessee, Arizona, Arkansas and South Carolina are asking voters on Nov. 2 to decide whether to establish a constitutional right to hunt and fish.
If the proposed amendment is approved, hunting and fishing would join other constitutionally guaranteed pursuits such as the right to bear arms and the right of trial by jury.
Ten other states already have such a right, including Georgia, which passed a similar measure in 2006, and Alabama, which passed the rule in 1996.
Tennessee state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, co-sponsored the bill to amend the state constitution. He said people should have a guaranteed right to hunt and fish.
“People sort of understand it and know it, but without it being a part of the actual framework of the constitution, it leaves open the opportunity for the government to infringe on people’s rights to hunt and fish,” Watson said.
This is what voters will see on the ballot when they go to the polls on Nov. 2:
“Shall Article XI, Section 13 of the Constitution of the State of Tennessee be amended by adding the following sentences at the end of the section: The citizens of this state shall have the personal right to hunt and fish, subject to reasonable regulations and restrictions 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.”
Source: Tennessee Division of Elections
He doesn’t believe such rights are threatened at the moment, but he’s concerned what may happen 50 or 100 years from now.
Ashley Byrne, senior campaigner for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, called the amendment frivolous.
“If we have the right to hunt and fish, why not have the right to shop and golf?” she asked.
“I think we are seeing this because hunting is in decline because most Americans prefer environmentally sound, nonconsumptive ways of enjoying wildlife and nature, especially younger people,” she said.
In 2006, there were 284,000 state residents who said they hunted in Tennessee, down from 380,000 in 1996, according to the recently released National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation.During the same period, there were 4,000 more who said they fished in 2006 than 1996, but 95,000 less than in 2001, survey data shows. Every five years, the federal government collects information on the number of people 16 years and older who fish, hunt and participate in wildlife watching, how often they do it and how much they spend.
It’s clear that the number of hunters and anglers in Tennessee is shrinking overall, state officials said. As reasons for the decline, they cite the cost of hunting and fishing, the lack of places to do it, the amount of time it requires and the lack of interest from young people.
“You get to a certain point and, if you have not participated in the outdoors — hunting, fishing, camping, biking — you might not ever do it,” said Tony Dolle, director of communications for Ducks Unlimited, which supports Tennessee’s hunting/fishing amendment.
Longtime friends Holloway and Graham, fishing off a pier underneath the C.B. Robinson Bridge recently, said they don’t get to fish as often as they would like, but that it’s still an important part of their lives. Graham is introducing his two daughters, ages 8 and 10, to the sport.
Both men used to hunt but don’t anymore.
“When I was younger, I did squirrel and deer hunting,” said Holloway. But he no longer has the patience, he said.
Doug Geren, a 60-year-old birdwatcher, said he used to hunt as a kid.
“If you grew up in Tennessee, it’s innate,” said the Cleveland, Tenn., resident.
All his relatives were hunters, he said, and, as a young man, his father even hunted with a slingshot.
But as he grew older, Geren said he felt bad about shooting squirrels he didn’t eat.
“There’s no longer the need to hunt for food and that’s what initially got hunting started. That relationship doesn’t exist anymore in America,” he said.
Now he says he’d much rather see an eagle soar in the sky or admire the beauty of the American whooping crane.
LOSS OF REVENUE
The decline in hunting and fishing means less money for state governments.
State wildlife resource agencies’ money comes primarily from the sale of licenses and excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment. Officials in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia all report declines since the 1980s.
In-state expenditures in Tennessee decreased by close to $340 million from 1996 to 2006, the hunting survey states. Georgia lost close to $1 billion and Alabama lost nearly $500 million.
“Every state is looking to see what they can do and see if they can put their finger on what the problem is,” said Fred Harders, assistant director of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries in Alabama.
In Georgia, Mark Whitney, chief of game management for the Wildlife Resources Division, said there’s been a 34 percent decrease in the number of certified license holders since 1980.
“This decline nationally ... is of huge importance and there’s a tremendous amount of interest, effort, research and study going into how do we recruit and retain participants in those activities,” he said.
“Generally our average age [of hunters and anglers] is getting older,” said Greg Wathen, chief of wildlife for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. “Basically what that tells us is that there are fewer younger people picking it up.”
He said the decline has been a concern for the agency for 10 years.
Some states are recruiting new hunters and anglers by establishing youth dove hunts or community fishing events.
Geren said wildlife resource agencies missed the boat by not making money from bird watchers like himself, which is the only activity that has grown consistently in numbers and expenditures.
“I would be glad to pay for a permit that allows me to go to the refuges and watch cranes, especially if we know that our money is going for nongame purposes,” he said.
Wildlife officials said there have been conversations about that, but not everyone feels like Geren.
“It has gained a little momentum, but there’s no federal mechanism to make that happen,” said Whitney.
In less than a month, Tennessee voters will decide if the Volunteer State becomes the 11th nationwide to guarantee in its constitution the right to hunt and fish “subject to reasonable regulations and restrictions prescribed by law.”
Before it reached voters, the prospective amendment had to pass the General Assembly twice in separate sessions, Watson said. A majority of individuals who cast ballots in the governor’s race must approve the proposed amendment if it is to pass.
Among the organizations supporting the amendment are the National Rifle Association and the Tennessee Wildlife Federation.
Wathen said the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has not taken a position on the amendment.
“In order to help ensure that our hunting heritage continues, when amendments like this come up we support them,” said Dolle with Ducks Unlimited. “That way with an amendment, in my opinion, it sets the highest legal standard or level ... and once you set that level is hard to erase it, to take that away from the citizens of Tennessee.”
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Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...