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Congressional Sportsmen Caucus works to preserve hunter freedoms

From the Alabama Dept. of Conservation & Natural Resources

-- When members of the U.S. Congress with a love for the outdoors realized how the basic freedoms that those who pursue outdoors recreation were being eroded, the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus was formed in 1989 to advocate for those freedoms in Washington, D.C.
The Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation was quickly formed as an action arm of the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus. The evolution of the effort led to the formation of the National Assembly of Sportsmen's Caucuses, which has representation from the state legislatures in 38 states.
Jeff Crane, president of the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation, said both Republican and Democratic members from the U.S. Congress realized there was no way to identify members from other states who were pro hunting or pro fishing, pro outdoors, pro sportsmen.
"They created the caucus just for that reason. They didn't want to see those rights eroded," Crane said. "They wanted to have a unified voice, an ability to get the word out and to get strong on legislative policy. That's when the caucus was started in Washington and the foundation was started about the same time.
"About eight years ago, we looked at this and realized how effective it had been. There were a few states that had a sportsmen's caucus but it was less than 10 states. We decided we should roll this out on a state-by-state basis. To make it even stronger, we should unify these state caucuses under an umbrella we call the National Assembly of Sportsmen's Caucuses (NASC)."
For the past seven years, NASC has convened a meeting at different sites across the U.S., and this year's meeting occurred at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear.
"Twenty-five states have legislators represented here," Crane said. "I don't think there is any other forum where you get this many legislators together. These are the guys who push the yea and nay buttons. All of us can talk about the things we do to support good policy, but ultimately they are the ones who have to cast the votes."
When the idea of a states-based organization was hatched less than 10 states had sportsmen's caucuses. Alabama's caucus was formed two years ago and now there are 38 states with caucuses.
"The individual states have the autonomy to do what they think is best and deal with the issues," Crane said. "The issues in Alabama are not going to be the same as say in one of the Rocky Mountain states. Each caucus is entirely independent. What this forum is for is to exchange ideas, see trends that are coming, pass good model legislation that will work from state to state, and watch for the stuff coming down the pike from the antis and be ready for it. It's really starting to pay dividends."
One example of a unified coalition that prevented what would have been a serious black eye for sportsmen was the idea of internet hunting, Crane said.
"You could sit at your computer and fire a real gun at a real animal and use your computer mouse," he said. "These caucuses quickly got together and passed legislation to shut that down.
"Access is a huge issue for us. We put together something called the Hunting Heritage Protection Clause, also known as no-net loss. It states that if the DNR closes down land that is traditionally open to public hunting that they have to find land to offset that loss for hunting and fishing."
Another effort NASC is involved in includes the recruitment and retention of hunters, which involves making it easy for people to experience hunting for the first time through mentor programs.
"The apprentice hunting license is one of those 'try it before you buy' deals," Crane said. "We're finding that that is helping a lot. Once they get a little taste of it, they tend to get hooked."
During the NASC meeting, the forums dealt with such issues like as wolf management in the West, states along the Atlantic Seaboard that don't have Sunday hunting, the widespread problems with feral hogs, as well as oil and gas exploration and how that interfaces with being good stewards of the environment, Crane said.
"We try to model these sessions to be thought-provoking and we listen to the legislators to find out what they doing in their own states," he said. "Some of those ideas, people say 'wow, let's take that home and see if it works for us.' That's what we're doing.
"We're delighted to be in Point Clear and to be in Alabama. We've been meeting mainly but we will get to enjoy some of the great outdoors recreation this great state has."
Rep. Randy Davis of Daphne, co-chair of the Alabama Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus in the House of Representatives along with Rep. John Robinson of Scottsboro, said the Alabama caucus was started two years ago with a $10,000 grant from the Alabama Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. The Alabama caucus has 82 members in the Senate and House and has been able to pass a no-net loss bill.
"The next thing we're going to try to do is reauthorize Forever Wild," Davis said. "That will be a real focus of our efforts this year. Part of the mission of the caucus is access to land to hunt or fish. Forever Wild has been very successful in giving the lay person access to hunting land.
"As you know, we finance the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources through hunting and fishing licenses, so we need to make as many opportunities available through acquisition of land suitable for outdoors recreation."
John McMillan of Stockton, who was recently elected Alabama Agriculture and Industry Commissioner, helped line up some of that outdoors recreation for the visitors. McMillan realizes what an important role these caucuses play in the future of hunting, fishing and other outdoors pursuits.
"First of all, it's very important that the Alabama Legislature participates in this group and other interest groups in Alabama," McMillan said. "It's particularly significant for us to be able to host it. As part of this event, we're going to take some of these legislators from other states deer hunting and hog hunting. I tend to emphasize hunting this time of year, but some folks are going fishing, both inshore and offshore. These legislators will be able to go back where they came from and let everybody know we're not covered up with oil and we have great hunting, fishing and seafood.
"One of the reasons I am here is to hear about what's going on with the feral hog situation in other parts of the country, because that's something that dramatically affects people in Alabama that have any relationship with the land, whether it's forestry or row crops or whatever. As you well know, we are covered up with that same problem. It's enlightening that other people are working on that problem."
As an ex officio member of the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board, the Agriculture Commissioner-elect said it is important for him to stay informed on issues that affect outdoors recreation, as well.
"This forum is important for the people of Alabama, particularly legislators and policy makers, in that they can become aware of issues in other parts of the country, for example, the issues with gun ownership and sportsmen's values," McMillan said. "We need to stay informed on those issues and ensure that our legislators are informed."
Corky Pugh, director of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division said having advocates in the legislatures helps ensure outdoors recreation will continue to be enjoyed now and in the future.
"The members of this group are really important to us," he said. "Only seven percent of the population hunts. So having members who are knowledgeable on the issues and have the perspective of a hunter and angler is really valuable. As sportsmen legislators, they help drive public policy that helps maintain the broad base of participation in hunting and fishing and help ensure those opportunities are available.

"If we keep that base solid, that continues to provide funding for protection and management of fish and wildlife resources. If people don't buy hunting and fishing licenses, then the funding goes away for maintaining those resources that all people enjoy.
"Another way these sportsmen legislators have a positive impact is because of their appreciation for the resource itself and the state agencies that maintain the resources. Most of these folks realize that when it comes to managing fish and wildlife you have to use sound science. Thirdly, they drive public policy that helps to maintain fair chase. The majority of people do not hunt, but the majority do approve of lawful, ethical hunting. Maintaining fair chase is essential to maintaining that base of support."  -- By DAVID RAINER

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