EASTHAM, MASS. — A CONTROVERSIAL federal law that targets hunting protesters may soon bag its first defendants.
At the Cape Cod National Seashore, two pheasant hunters recently filed a harassment complaint with park rangers, claiming that demonstrators from the Fund for Animals interfered with their hunt.
If the case goes to trial, Park Service officials say, prosecutors could employ a new law - passed in the recent Crime Bill package - to charge the demonstrators with a federal crime.
While hunters praise the measure, animal-rights groups say it violates their First Amendment right to free speech and vow to challenge it in court.
``All we were doing is trying to ask [the hunters] a few questions,'' says Mark Markarian, a Fund For Animals activist who was named in the complaint.
``You can't tell me that there's anything wrong with walking in the woods and trying to have a conversation with somebody.''
Mr. Markarian and a dozen Fund For Animals members assembled on Cape Cod this weekend to denounce a program in which the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife raises 800 Chinese pheasants every year, then releases them at the national seashore for hunting.
While the Fund for Animals had obtained a permit to picket the hunt in the parking lot, Markarian and fellow activist Todd MacDonald, clad in bright-orange sweatshirts and knit caps, ventured into the woods to confront hunters directly.
When they tried to discourage two sportsmen from shooting pheasants, Markarian says, one hunter struck him with the butt of a rifle and threatened to kill him. He has filed a separate complaint.
At the park headquarters, the distant sound of gunshots mingled with the chants of protesters and the shouts of passing hunters.
The new federal law, sponsored by Sen. Max Baucus (R) of Montana, reflects the belief of most hunters that animal-rights groups go too far when they tramp into the woods to scare away game and plead with hunters.
``Picketing in the parking lot is okay, but when I'm in the woods, that's my free time,'' Mark Palmer, a hunter, told reporters.
Park Ranger Rick Obernasser says that if charges are brought against the protesters, the case may well end up in federal court, marking the first implementation of the law. But park rangers themselves may ask for prosecution of the protesters under a Massachusetts hunter-harassment law, carrying the charge of a misdemeanor.