When Jimmie Rosenbruch went north last month, bound for the high country of southeast Alaska to stalk mountain goats, the Utah sportsman and master hunting guide toted more than a rifle into the wilderness.
Mr. Rosenbruch, a burly lifelong Republican and acquaintance of former President George H.W. Bush, also carried personal displeasure over the natural- resource agenda of Mr. Bush's son.
In particular, Rosenbruch and a groundswell of other gun owners from the lower 48 are challenging the Bush administration's plan to undo protection of Alaska's Tongass and Chugach national forests by opening both to increased logging and road construction.
For the current president, who relied upon unwavering support from the so-called "hook and bullet" crowd to win in 2000, the kind of public criticism now being voiced by political conservatives like Rosenbruch represents a potential problem in 2004, observers say.
According to a report from the Fish and Wildlife Service, hunters and anglers are a formidable force not only in what they spend, but also in the political power they wield. More than 34 million Americans over age 16 fish annually; 13 million hunt.
Many analysts think most of these people are Republican and supportive of President Bush. But now, a growing vocal minority is taking a stand on concerns they have - from weakening water protection standards in fishable waterways, to proposals to drill for oil in what have been off-limits areas. These people want a clean and healthy environment not only for hunters and anglers, but for all Americans - and they believe Bush is straying too far from this principle.
Perhaps no example is more poignant than a recent petition signed by hundreds of gun clubs - on behalf of untold thousands of members - telling Dale Bosworth, Forest Service chief, to keep in place Clinton-era protection of old-growth forests, two-thirds of which lie in Alaska.
"The response took me by surprise, especially in Texas," says Greg Petrich, the petition organizer, who is also a registered Alaska Republican and former commercial fisherman.
When Mr. Petrich began circulating the petition in October, he modestly hoped to enlist 100 gun clubs in the lower 48. But the response has been so overwhelming that he now believes he'll have 500 organizations signed up by the end of the year. The list of supporters includes the Allegheny Country Rifle Club of Pittsburgh (oldest gun club in the US), 49 combat handgun clubs, and 40 shooting groups in Mr. Bush's home state of Texas.
In addition, conservation organizations like Trout Unlimited, with its large membership of suburban "country club" Republicans who love to fly-fish, have questioned the Bush administration's opening of pristine public lands to natural-resource development.
Opinion polls have made the Bush administration well aware that its handling of the environment holds resonance as a serious domestic campaign issue. And analysts see the millions of suburban sport shooters and rural hunters - traditionally the core of the National Rifle Association (NRA) membership - as representing an important swing vote.
One of those joining Petrich's campaign is Carl Rosier, a state game and fish commissioner who served under former Alaska Gov. Wally Hickel, a stalwart conservative Republican.
Reached in Juneau, Mr. Rosier explained that proposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - which he supports - is the battle front that most Americans associate with Alaska. But the Bush administration's current efforts to restore publicly subsidized logging of Alaskan rain forest will also be a green lightning rod in the coming months.
"You've got a bunch of timber beasts [former timber-industry lobbyists] setting environmental policy in Alaska, and that's wrong," Rosier says. "In three years, we've witnessed a 180-degree swing from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush."
Both Rosier and Rosenbruch believe in "reasonable" resource extraction, but they say Republicans are adrift from the stewardship principles championed a century ago by GOP President Theodore Roosevelt. Such sentiments could cost candidates at the polls.
Yet many backers of the president believe that Bush has nothing to fear. With its 4 million members, the NRA doesn't see a large number of gun owners turning against Bush. "Without a doubt, he has the strongest support among NRA members of any modern president," says J.P. Nelson, the NRA's Western field director based in Mesa, Ariz. "We were mobilized in the last election, and we will be again."
Still Petrich, who is a member of the Northern Sportsmen Network, says not all hunters need to support Tongass protection in order to seize the attention of campaign strategists. "Small percentages of voters could have a big impact in 2004," Petrich says. "If this administration senses that more hunters and shooters are becoming ambivalent about Bush because of his conservation agenda, it could force them to reconsider what they're doing in wild places like the Tongass."