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NRA gets pass on hunting cruelties

Policies set group outside mainstream

The National Rifle Association’s resistance to almost any limits on guns or gun purchases is well-established.

Less frequently discussed is the group’s unyielding defense of unsporting and destructive hunting pursuits, including the use of highly toxic lead ammunition, the trophy killing of rare and threatened species, the opening of national parks to sport hunting, and cruel practices such as bear baiting and captive or “canned” hunts.

The Humane Society of the U.S. has tangled with the NRA on ballot initiatives in about 15 states and has consistently come out ahead with voters when it came to banning captive hunts (Montana), stopping bear baiting and hound hunting of bears and other predators (California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington), and eliminating the use of steel-jawed leghold traps and other body-gripping devices (Arizona, California, Colorado, Massachusetts and Washington).

In Michigan, our organization has turned in 253,000 signatures in support of a referendum to block trophy hunting and commercial trapping of wolves, which until last year were listed under federal law as threatened with extinction.

Our surveys and ballot initiative campaigns show that Americans generally favor hunting but want sensible limits. They expect hunters to observe some sense of sportsmanship – and shooting an animal in a fenced enclosure or with its head buried in a pile of bait doesn’t meet the definition. They want the hunters to eat the meat of the animals and not to shoot them just for trophies. They don’t want to cause the animals inordinate stress or suffering or to put entire species at risk. They feel more comfortable if the hunting is for population control or a well-justified “management” purpose.

Worst-case defenders

For the most part, the current debate is simply a matter of asking hunters to adhere to these enduring, and often self-styled, standards. Yet the NRA defends the worst practices, and too many lawmakers exhibit an embarrassing fealty that is out of sync with the NRA’s political power.

Before the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., leaders of the Senate seemed intent on passing a bill that was a grab bag for the NRA. Among other things, the measure introduced by Montana Democrat Jon Tester would have allowed imports of heads and hides of polar bears killed in Canada.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature listed the polar bear as vulnerable, based on a projected population reduction of more than 30 percent within three generations (45 years) because of a decrease in distribution and habitat quality; in 2008, the George W. Bush administration listed the species as threatened with extinction. The last thing these bears need are Americans tromping up to northern Canada to kill them, and then pleading with members of Congress for a trophy import allowance.

Earlier in the 112th Congress, House Republicans approved this reckless trophy-import provision, and supported provisions to open areas of the National Park Service to sport hunting and to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from restricting the use of lead shot. The votes took place days after the NRA’s annual convention in April, and were widely recognized as a political sop to the gun lobby.

More extremism

The radical positioning of the NRA doesn’t stop there. Lead poisoning has become a leading cause of death for the highly endangered California condor – the result of these scavengers eating gut piles containing lead or carcasses of animals wounded by hunters. The state legislature and the California Fish and Game Commission banned the use of lead ammunition in condor country starting in 2008. Yet it’s still used in condor habitat in Arizona and across the U.S. on public and private lands.

The NRA continues to oppose efforts to stop the poisoning of other species. Preferring a rigid orthodoxy to science, the gun lobby’s leaders defend some imaginary right of hunters to scatter a known poison across our remaining wildlands, even when nontoxic ammunition is readily available at a reasonable price.

The U.S. government cites more than 500 scientific studies to conclude that lead ammunition leaves fragments in animal tissue and poses a threat to 134 species. Tests of packaged game meat have shown microscopic traces of lead that could put humans at risk.

The NRA has also bullied lawmakers into opposing efforts to ban bear baiting on federal lands. Even though the U.S. Forest Service and other federal land managers tell visitors to “never feed wildlife,” bear hunters dump jelly doughnuts, old pizza and rotting meat to lure their prey. Of the 4,000 or so black bears shot each fall in Maine, 80 percent are killed over bait piles.

Although about two dozen states ban captive hunts, there are still thousands of private hunting preserves elsewhere – Texas is the industry hub – where trophy hunters shoot animals in captive settings. (Indiana is seeking additional protection for current operators in the General Assembly.) Typically, these operations are “no kill, no pay” and the hunting is guaranteed by the operators.

The NRA’s invoking of the noble principles of freedom and constitutional rights to defend hunting, as with its inflexible stance on gun control, is only a smoke screen for extremism.

As Americans press politicians to come to the vital center on guns, they should do the same on wildlife issues and hunting. Some forms of hunting produce unacceptable cruelty, and are at odds with the creed of the responsible practitioner. Limits must be placed on the havoc that a segment of the hunting community wreaks upon animals.

Wayne Pacelle is president and chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the U.S. He wrote this for Bloomberg View.