Hunting bill splits West over value of a longtime rite

Currently before Congress, measure angers newcomers. Yet hunters, feeling besieged, see it as an important move.

For Tim Shinabarger, the autumn hunt is about more than meat for the dinner table. As the aspens glow, Mr. Shinabarger sees the big-game season as a necessary part of being a Westerner.

To this sportsman who makes a living as a wildlife artist, it's about gathering fresh material for paintings and bronze sculptures, stalking trophy animals for the den wall, and most important, communing with friends and family in the outdoors.

"I can't imagine not hunting," Shinabarger says. "It's like breathing."

Hunting may indeed be part of Shinabarger's heritage, but across the West and other corners of wild America, an increasing number of people would rather keep hunters from tromping through the public's forests.

Here, a cultural chasm is widening between residents who grew up hunting on public lands, and urbanite newcomers who fear guns and learned more about nature from PBS, not pup tents. Into this environment comes the Hunting Heritage Protection Act, a bill currently before Congress intended to ensure that hunting has a permanent and prominent place in the future of federal lands.

Originally drafted as a largely symbolic measure to enshrine America's hunting history, the bill has become a Waterloo of sorts in the West, where the vast majority of federal lands lie. At issue are clashing views of where the region is headed - and the value of a centuries-old tradition.

"We all know full well that these traditional uses are coming under continuing, unrelenting assault," says Bill Horn, a pro-hunting lobbyist and a former assistant US Interior Secretary under George Bush. "We want to make the other side have to come and take it away from us."

The push for legislation is, in part, a response to gains that animal-rights activists have made in seeking the prohibition of sport hunts. During the past few years, numerous ballot measures have passed, ending activities such as mountain-lion hunting in California, black-bear hunting in New Jersey, and trapping in Colorado.

The heritage hunting act mandates that the total amount of federal land open to hunting in the US stay constant. In other words, if land managers close one area to hunting, they must open new areas of the same size to hunting somewhere else.

So far, mainstream environmental organizations - whose members include hunters and nonhunters - have been careful not to criticize. Yet other organizations have not been bashful in their condemnation. In fact, the Fund for Animals would like to see all hunting ended, says member Andrea Lococo.

Outside her home in rural Bondurant, Wyo., Ms. Lacoco can hear rifle fire around her in all directions as hunters search for elk, deer, and bighorn sheep.

"There are areas where people won't go into, even with blaze orange clothing on their backs, because they are afraid of getting shot," she says. "Not only are you dealing with resident hunters, but Wyoming attracts a lot of out-of-state hunters who are not familiar with public-lands boundaries or where hiking trails are located."

Hunting, after all, is a pillar of local economies in the autumn, providing a steady cash flow of millions of dollars to guides, stores, restaurants, and motels.

In 1996 (the most recent statistics):

* 11.3 million people hunted big game ranging from deer to moose.

* 6.9 million hunted small game such as rabbits and squirrels.

* 3.1 million hunted migratory birds such as doves and waterfowl.

* Of 14 million total hunters, the average individual spent 18 days hunting each year and an annual average of $1,475.

In states ranging from New Mexico to Pennsylvania, the opening of hunting has, in recent years, even been considered an official holiday for school kids to go hunting with their parents.

When Shinabarger was a teenager, his father would write the school a note, informing the principal that his son would miss a week's worth of classes.

"He figured I learned as much in the wilderness as I would in class," Shinabarger says. "It taught me discipline to get my schoolwork done before we left.... It gave me self-confidence being in the mountains. And, best of all, it gave me time to be with my dad."

Despite the nostalgia, hunting is increasingly on the defensive. When Lacoco opened the Fund's Rocky Mountain office a few years ago, she was met with hostility. Now, slowly, she says, "attitudes are definitely changing."

Terry Grosz sees the change, as well. The former game warden remembers being verbally attacked when he went into a restaurant wearing camouflage.

"I had been out in the field trying to bust wildlife poachers, but that day the owner of the restaurant took me for a hunter and let me have it," Mr. Grosz says.

Together with longtime ranchers, newcomers are now closing off vast swaths of private land that used to be open for hunting. As more hunters funnel into public lands as an alternative, they are encountering higher concentrations of hunters and antagonism from nonhunters.

Many are finding neither the solace nor the experience they once knew, so they are giving up, Grosz says. "I predict that within 20 to 25 years, hunting will no longer exist in many areas."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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