Guest Column: Wildlife Ballot Initiatives And Why They Fail by Dena Jones Jolma

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1992:

The initiative process is the most difficult and expensive approach to reforming
wildlife management at the state level. Opponents of wildlife management reform,
including the powerful National Rifle Association and Wildlife Legislative Fund of
America, are willing and able to spend in excess of one million dollars to defeat individ-
ual state initiatives. These groups have been successful in turning around public opinion
on issues such as banning steel-jawed leghold traps by financing intense media cam-
Not since 1930 in Massachusetts have voters approved a trapping ban in a
statewide election. On this past Election Day, the voters of Arizona turned down a ban
on use of steel-jawed traps on public lands by a three-to-two margin. With that vote,
Arizona joined Oregon (1980) and Ohio (1977) as states where trapping bans have failed
in recent years.

There are striking similarities in the failures of the three state anti-trapping cam-
paigns. In each instance, advertisements designed to frighten and confuse voters reversed
public opinion in the final months or weeks of the campaign. The advertisements suc-
ceeded by changing public perception of the trapping issue from a matter of animal wel-
fare to a matter of people welfare. Each campaign included a threat that hunting and fish-
ing would ultimately be affected if trapping reform passed. In the Oregon and Arizona
campaigns, the opposition outspent locally funded animal and envirornmental groups by
more than ten to one. While the opposition campaigns were professionally managed and
planned, the efforts of the pro-animal groups were plagued by poor coordination and
weak fundraising. And all of the anti-trapping initiatives have included vague and
ambiguous language, which directly contributed to their defeat.
“Never bring a vote to the people unless you are sure you can win,” goes an old
political adage. Public approval in the range of 70-80% for the proposed change is usual-
ly a prerequisite to winning. But as the failed trapping bans show, supportive public
opinion isn’t enough. A successful campaign requires effective leadership––the ability to
raise money, and to organize the activities of diverse individuals and groups. In addi-
tion, there must be a realistic assessment of the resources of the opposition. State demo-
graphics are also important. Geography professor John Gentile studied anti-trapping ini-
tiatives for his doctoral dissertation and found that factors such as population density and
source of income may affect the success of wildlife initiatives in any given area.
Trapping is not the only area of wildlife management where statewide attempts
at reform have failed. A ban on moose hunting was defeated by voters in Maine (1983)
and an attempt to reverse a legislative act that restored dove hunting lost in South Dakota
(1980). The only wins at the ballot box for wildlife reform have been the 1990 ban on
trophy hunting of mountain lions in California and this year’s successful ban of spring
black bear hunts in Colorado. In both cases, the influence of the NRA and WLFA on the
campaigns was minimal, presumably because the groups were occupied elsewhere. In
1990, the NRA was busy fighting gun control legislation in Washington, and in this past
election, the Arizona campaign took the pressure off the bear issue in Colorado, allow-
ing the measure to pass by a wide margin.
The circumstances of the California and Colorado victories suggest that the
opposition’s power lies in the leadership of their national organizations. Local sports-
men’s groups may lack the motivation, resources, or expertise to direct an effective cam-
paign on their own.
Members of national animal advocacy organizations often wonder why the
groups don’t become more involved in their state and local campaigns. But local groups
that don’t seek the advice of national organizations during the planning stage of an initia-
tive can’t expect to be bailed out when the going gets tough. If an initiative’s wording is
faulty, it makes little sense for national groups to expend valuable resources in what will
probably be a losing effort. The approach of many national groups to influence trapping
through reducing public demand for fur appears to be justified. While no trapping bans
have been passed during the last five years, the number of animals trapped during the
same period has been reduced by low fur prices from over 20 million per year to under
four million.
The negative effects of rejection at the ballot box go beyond the immediate loss.
Defeat in a public referendum can indicate to a state legislature or wildlife regulatory
agency that “the people have spoke,” and that the subject should be closed. Repeated
losses give the impression that the issue lacks merit and that those sponsoring the reform
lack ability as well as credibility. And above all, a loss serves to strengthen the opposi-
tion’s stature, financial assets, and resolve.
Editor’s note: The sponsors of the Arizona anti-trapping initiative made a
strategic decision at the outset of their petition drive to place the measure on the ballot
that they would not seek the support of national animal protection groups, in order to
avoid the very kind of linkage to hunting and fishing––and perhaps laboratory raids and
vegetarianism––that eventually defeated the measure anyway.
[Dena Jones Jolma is editor of Hunting Quotations: Two Hundred Years of Writings
on the Philosophy, Culture and Experience. (McFarland & Co., Box 611, Jefferson,
NC 28640; 256 pages, clothbound, $29.95.]
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