During atypical social and economic times that devastate communities and states, some governors, through emergency powers granted to them by state constitutions and statutes, have far-reaching authority that can negatively impact our time-honored traditions of hunting and fishing. The COVID-19 pandemic during 2020 and 2021 saw the instatement of unnecessary and overreaching restrictions on the ability of sportsmen and women to participate in outdoor activities like hunting and fishing across the nation. With this in mind, legislators are encouraged to reexamine the emergency powers granted to their respective governors and to work towards ensuring that the ability to limit hunting and fishing opportunities rests with state fish and wildlife management agencies, who are in a better position to make access-related decisions on a case-by-case basis, rather than through unilateral Executive powers.
Hunting and angling are key components of our nation’s cultural fabric and are cornerstones in many Americans’ lives. These activities, and many other outdoor pursuits enjoyed by sportsmen and women, can provide both sustenance through the procurement of food, as well as several well-documented physical and mental health benefits through the inherently recreational nature of these activities. During and/or following catastrophic events such as natural disasters or pandemics, these activities can provide necessary and fundamental distractions from the circumstances negatively impacting society. Many states have measures within their constitutions that grant extraordinary power to their respective governor in an attempt to help lead the citizens through a state of emergency. However, in recent times, this power has been expanded to unprecedented levels in which unilateral decisions are made that negatively impact our time-honored traditions. The recent COVID-19 pandemic brought this issue into sharp focus as activities that allowed for safe social distancing (such as hunting, fishing, and boating) were unnecessarily denied or curtailed.
In extraordinary times, such as the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and 2021, an enormous amount of pressure rests on state leaders to take decisive action and to help lead their citizens safely back to a sense of normalcy. As a result, states have created emergency powers, either in their statutes or via constitutional authority, that allow the state’s executive branch to enact far-reaching orders with little oversight. In some cases, this far-reaching authority has allowed governors to issue orders that significantly, and without justification, limit opportunities for sportsmen and women who wish to spend their days afield. By way of example, Illinois closed state lands during the spring in response to the pandemic, effectively closing the turkey season to hunters who rely on state public lands for access. Similarly, Idaho and Oregon closed fishing and hunting to nonresidents, while Montana postponed its turkey and bear hunting seasons to a later date for nonresidents. The State of Washington temporarily closed its fishing season while still permitting boating opportunities. New York, on the other hand, closed boat ramps and marinas throughout the state for a brief period of time. The Governor of New York quickly reversed this decision after strong opposition received from many sportsmen and women who rely on boat ramps in rural areas for participating in fishing and other outdoor recreation activities, which could be performed in accordance with the safe-distancing guidelines put forward by public health officials. Likewise, the Governor of Michigan issued an executive order that prohibited the use of motorized boats. However, this executive order was allowed to expire at the end of April 2020 and was not renewed.
Hunting and fishing are the pillars of the American sportsmen’s tradition and the backbone of wildlife conservation. The right to maintain these basic activities needs to be preserved, even during times of extreme or unusual stress.
Points of Interest
- 4 million Americans partake in hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting each year, spending $93.7 billion on gear, motorboat fuel, licenses, travel, and clothing. These are recreational activities that can be practiced safely while adhering to social distancing guidelines.
- Hunting and fishing license sales surge during crises, as demonstrated during the recessions of 1988, 2001, and 2008. In early 2020, Vermont reported hunting license sales were up 23%, and 5,300 more fishing licenses were sold compared to the same period in the previous year. Increases in license sales were also observed in IN, IA, and several other states across the country.
- The stoppage of youth sports in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic is believed to have encouraged more youth to buy fishing licenses as an alternative, socially distanced activity.
- By mid-May 2020, Tennessee saw 8,412 more spring turkeys harvested than at the same point in 2019, an increase that was attributed, at least in part, to increased participation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- In May of 2020, New York legislators introduced a bill to limit the Governor’s emergency powers due to the enactment of several far-reaching executive orders issued with no legislative oversight.
- Several states’ statutes, including CO, FL, ME, TX, WI, and WV, give the power to end states of emergency to the respective legislative body. Colorado’s statute states “the [G]eneral [A]ssembly, by joint resolution, may terminate a state of disaster emergency at any time.”
- COVID-19 also brought fears of food/meat shortages. Hunting and fishing provide a valuable and healthy alternative to store bought meats, which are vulnerable to many variables during a statewide emergency.
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, the widespread and newfound interest that many individuals are experiencing in outdoor recreation represents an invaluable opportunity to introduce Americans to activities like hunting and fishing and the vital role sportsmen and women play in conservation.
- In early 2020, the #ResponsibleRecreation campaign emerged as a “safe and constructive way to encourage individuals and families to get outside and enjoy the outdoors as a means to cope with the current COVID-19 pandemic.
During states of emergency and other crises, legislatures must work toward introducing policies that protect hunting and fishing opportunities during states of emergency. Legislators should also work with the sporting community to implement “right to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife” amendments to their respective state constitutions. Hunting and fishing both enjoy historically high safety records and can be accomplished while practicing safe social distancing. These recreational activities provide avenues of enjoyment for millions of sportsmen and women and contribute valuable monetary benefits to local and state economies.