A Senate committee discussed a constitutional amendment last month that, if approved by the legislature and passed by voters, would secure the right to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife in the state constitution.
Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, is sponsoring Senate Joint Resolution 1 and has sponsored similar or identical legislation several times before.
Before the Senate Agriculture, Food Production and Outdoor Resources Committee, Hoskins argued that his bill would protect “American heritage.”
“Anti-hunting organizations would lead the public to believe that hunting, fishing and harvesting of wildlife are only privileges subject to social pressures and prevailing public sentiments rather than an inherent right,” Hoskins said. “In order to establish in perpetuity what has been assumed for centuries, several states have sought amendments to state constitutions.”
There are 23 states that guarantee the right to hunt and fish. Vermont enshrined the right in its constitution in 1777, and 22 more states have followed since the 1990s, Hoskins said. The language in Hoskins’ bill is similar to the model language that the National Rifle Association has provided for states to use.
Hoskins said the bill’s provision that protects “traditional devices and methods” of hunting includes firearms, bows and crossbows but does not include noodling, a practice of hunting catfish with one’s bare hands and feet that is legal in 16 states but not Missouri. Hoskins added that the bill would preserve hunting seasons.
Sen. Barbara Washington, D-Kansas City, asked who would determine the meaning of “unreasonable” where the bill states no law “shall unreasonably restrict” hunting, fishing or using traditional methods.
Hoskins said the Missouri Department of Conservation would oversee enforcement. He said case law from other states that have adopted the amendment suggest that “unreasonable” refers to an “arbitrary” standard that would only restrict the most extreme regulations, meaning most agency regulations “will likely pass muster in court.”
Washington also asked what the bill would do to safeguard endangered animals that need protection from hunting. Hoskins said the bill does not legalize poaching, so hunting protected species would remain illegal.
Aaron Jeffries, deputy director of the Department of Conservation, said the department had concerns about the word “unreasonable” and the phrase “traditional devices and methods” but that he was willing to work with Hoskins on “agreeable language.”
Missouri has a unique system in which a conservation commission within the Department of Conservation, appointed by the governor, regulates wildlife, hunting and fishing, Jeffries said. He said other states that have passed the hunting amendment have faced litigation over how the wording of the bill applies to regulations.
For example, representatives from two Tennessee fishermen’s associations took the state Wildlife Resources Commission to court over its restrictions on harvesting American paddlefish, a vulnerable species prized for its eggs, which make caviar. A judge decided for the commission, arguing the state’s hunting amendment did not preclude the state from “regulat(ing) commercial activity.”
“That is one of our concerns,” Jeffries said. “If we’re going to do this, let’s get the language right to continue to protect the commission’s authority, as well as avoid any unnecessary consequences.”