DALLAS/PHOENIX (Reuters) - Worried that their pastime may get waylaid by a growing animal welfare movement, U.S. hunters and anglers in some states are seeking constitutional safeguards.
When voters in Arizona, Arkansas, South Carolina and Tennessee go to the polls to cast their ballots in the congressional elections on Nov 2, they will also be asked if they support making hunting and fishing constitutional rights.
That will be a loaded question at that time of the year, when deer season is starting in many states and millions of Americans take to the woods, firearms in hand.
"When you have something protected in your constitution, then it is very difficult to use the courts or other types of ballot activities to thwart, for example, hunting and fishing," said Steve Faris, a Democratic Arkansas state senator and the bill's lead sponsor there.
"They start with cats and dogs and the next thing you know, someone says it's inhumane to shoot a deer. It's like buying an insurance policy," he told Reuters in a phone interview.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 10 states guarantee the right to hunt and fish in their constitutions. Vermont's provisions go back to 1777 but the rest have all been put in place since 1996.
The current measures are not seen making a big difference in any House or Senate race.
But they are another lifestyle clash in America's many culture wars, which often seem to pit the rural and conservative "heartland" against urban liberals.
Such issues are not so cut and dried -- there are rural animal welfare activists and urbanites who love guns and hunting -- but there are real rural/urban and regional cultural divides which are often highlighted by these debates.
The current drive to give hunting and fishing added protection also comes against the background of data that suggests a decline in such activities.
According to one widely cited report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 12.5 million Americans hunted in 2006, down four percent from 2001 and 11 percent from 1991. The number of anglers from 1991 to 2006 fell 16 percent to 30 million.
"A desperate attempt to prop up a dying pastime," was how Ashley Byrne, a New York-based campaigner for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), described the hunting and fishing ballot proposals.
She said PETA had not mounted any campaigns against the amendments but she said it would "continue to educate people about how hunting is cruel and unnecessary."
But for many Americans it is a cherished way of life and the divide between the PETA view of hunting and that of Mike Adams, 60, a builder from Bisbee in southern Arizona, could hardly be starker.
He bought his first rifle when he was nine years old, and has hunted ever since. He is preparing for an annual deer hunting trip with a dozen buddies later this month, and backs Proposition 109, which he feels would enshrine rights in Arizona that he sees as under attack.
"I feel that some of the animal rights activists are going to extremes to take our right away both to bear arms and to bag game," said Adams, who hopes to harvest some elusive white-tailed deer in mountains close to the Mexico border.
"I'm a firm believer that anyone who wants to hunt should be able to do it, regardless," he said.
Back in Arkansas, Senator Faris noted that hunting and fishing were also important to the state economy. On a national scale, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that hunters and anglers spent $76.7 billion in 2006, the last year for which such data is available.