It's not just hunting season. It's also election season. This year's race not only will set the tone for the direction of the country, but also will lay the foundation for the future of conservation and other issues that directly affect hunters.
So which candidate and which party will best represent the interests of hunters?
Both major party presidential candidates offered a glimpse into their administration's conservation policy at a media summit hosted by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership in Fort Collins, Colorado, in June.
Donald Trump Jr. represented the Trump campaign, and California Congressman Mike Thompson, a Democrat from Napa Valley, represented the Clinton campaign. (Petersen's Hunting made several attempts to reach out to Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson's campaign, but calls and emails were not returned.)
Both surrogates made compelling cases for their candidates, and both were knowledgeable and informed on current issues critical to hunters. Trump grew up hunting and fishing and is a competitive shooter, an avid bowhunter, and a fly fisherman. Thompson, a Vietnam veteran, grew up hunting around his home in Napa Valley, and he still hunts and shoots.
Trump and Thompson acknowledged the candidates they represent do not hunt or fish, and both asserted they would likely play a role in shaping their candidate's conservation policies.
Presidents don't pass legislation, of course. They sign bills passed by Congress into law or veto them. Which means the conservation and gun legislation that
affects all of us will go through the legislative branch before reaching the president's desk. Thirty-four seats in the Senate are up for grabs, and all 435 House seats are being contested.
Still, said TRCP President Whit Fosburgh, presidents set the tone for the agencies that work under their administrations, and they wield considerable power in the form of executive orders. President Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate 26 national monuments, including the half-million-acre Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico.
"D" or "R"?
Whether or not the two candidates' conservation platforms will actually come to pass remains to be seen, but Fosburgh said we shouldn't judge either party with a simple scorecard.
"There are Republicans who are strong on conservation issues and Democrats who don't care about conservation issues," he said. "There are good people on both sides. I don't think it's fair to say Democrats are good and Republicans are bad, although Democrats by and large have seized on conservation in recent years."
Based solely on past legislative actions and rhetoric regarding conservation issues, though, it's difficult to not keep score.
Republicans lose. One of the most disturbing Republican-led actions is the push to transfer federal lands, including Bureau of Land Management and national forest land, to the states. Thankfully, it's an idea that neither presidential candidate supports.
"This is where we've probably broken away from a lot of the traditional conservative dogma," said Trump. "We do want federal lands to remain federal. If I used to be able to drive 20 minutes to hunt and now have to drive three hours to hunt, that's going to be the effective end of hunting."
Thompson also declared Clinton had no intention of allowing Congress to give federal property back to the states. No other Democrat at the national or state level has subscribed to that idea, either.
Some Republicans have called for the Endangered Species Act to be abolished instead of amended, despite such success stories as Aleutian Canada geese, grizzly bears, and American alligators. Others demand the end of the Environmental Protection Agency. Republicans at the state and federal level opposed many of the Obama administration's national monument designations, which maintain most activities but permanently protect them from such things as development, disposal, and mineral extraction.
Republicans win by a mile on one vital issue important to hunters: the Second Amendment. Generally, Republican legislators have been strong Second Amendment supporters and have effectively blocked attempts to restrict gun rights. The most restrictive gun control bills have been sponsored by Democrats.
Although her website is short on specifics, there's little doubt Clinton is far more willing to restrict gun rights than Trump. She has repeatedly called for a ban on "assault" weapons and high- capacity magazines, once called for a national gun registry, and wants background checks for all gun sales.
Even Thompson, who supports a number of gun restrictions, acknowledged that an assault weapons ban would have little impact on reducing crime.
"There are over ten million of them in the hands of civilians in America," he said. "You're not getting that toothpaste back in the tube. I would rather say, 'You pass a background check, and you can get your gun,' notwithstanding the type of gun."
Trump senior has his own Second Amendment skeletons. He supported the assault weapons ban in 2000, and he suggested a "slightly" longer waiting period. His positions have since changed, and he is endorsed by the NRA.
Trump made it clear that his father would be a strong supporter of gun rights. "The fact that there's even a notion that 'shall not be infringed' is not clear is ludicrous," he said.
What's more, the next president is expected to appoint at least two U.S. Supreme Court justices during the first term. A left-leaning president will likely appoint justices with similar views, which may bring a new rash of gun-related cases to the Supreme Court. A liberal-majority court could side against the Second Amendment.
A Deep Divide
Hunters need guns, of course, but they also need a place to hunt, quality habitat, and abundant game populations. That's not a partisan issue. At least it wasn't
20 years ago. These days, even the most benign legislation is marred by division, typically along party lines.
"I think in some instances, some legislators are partisan just to be partisan," said Fosburgh.
Delta Waterfowl Vice President of Government Affairs John Devney agrees. "It's not about clean water or protecting habitat anymore," he said. "It's about ideological victories."
Take Utah Congressman Rob Bishop (R), Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, who said, "There's no way in hell I am going to allow you just to spend that'¦to expand the footprint of the federal government."
Bishop was referring to the revenue-neutral Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, it uses a portion of taxes on offshore energy production to pay for such things as public hunting and fishing access and urban park and recreation programs.
In many instances, the land is turned over to the locality. What's more, the LWCF has been widely praised among the conservation community. It had broad bipartisan support when it came up for renewal last fall, but Bishop and other Republicans attempted to block funding.
Trump said his father would continue the LWCF and was open to the idea of additional funding through onshore energy royalties. Thompson also agreed that the LWCF was a critical source of funding for access.
"She [Clinton] understands how incredibly important it is," he said, adding that Clinton would also examine options for additional funding.
One thing Republicans do get right, agree Fosburgh and Devney, is their opposition to needless regulations and federal oversight in the name of conservation.
"There is too much reliance on regulatory oversight," said Fosburgh. "The best conservation comes from local citizens who have a vested interest in the issue. There's no question the federal government can and should play a role, but in many cases, they go too far."
Devney thinks a recent EPA ruling did just that. Called Waters of the United States, it was written to define the various waters that fall under the EPA's jurisdiction. It was a divisive ruling, one that garnered contempt among virtually every Republican in Congress, as well as a handful of Democrats. A better alternative to WOTUS, he said, would have been some sort of voluntary, incentive-based solution like a Conservation Reserve-type program for wetlands.
"All the money and manpower being used right now just on the legal battle over WOTUS could have been used to actually protect wetlands," said Devney. "This ruling has yet to protect a single one. We already know that investments in conservation are cheaper and far more palatable than regulations."
That's why Devney and Fosburgh agree that it's up to the conservation community not only to advocate for conservation-specific legislation and funding, but also to show the value of that funding. Spending a dollar now is better than spending ten later. Perhaps even more important, we must be better informed of the views and principles of those who want to represent us.
"We need to look beyond the 'D' or the 'R' next to a politician's name," said Fosburgh. "We can't pretend one party is good and one is bad. We have to hold everyone accountable for their actions on matters important to hunters."
It may be hunting season, but it's also election season. Do yourself and your fellow hunters a favor. Study the candidates as thoroughly as you study the buck you keep catching on your trail cameras. And then vote.