The Hook and Bullet Crowd

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Remember in 2004 when John Kerry got ridiculed for his awkward duck-hunting trip in Ohio just before the election? There’s a good reason why Kerry went hunting: the hook and bullet crowd – as they often tongue-in-cheek call themselves – are a hugely important swing vote in a lot of crucial states. According to the U.S. Census more than 34 million Americans fish annually and 16 million hunt. The top five populations include three swing states: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. And nearly half of the voters in Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and Utah — 8 million people — are hunters or fishers, according to the non-partisan conversation group Trout Unlimited.

Those five Western states have also seen a 260% increase in drilling leases since Bush took office. “We’ve moved too quickly and are risking fishing and hunting habitat,” said Chris Wood, executive vice president for the group. “We have deep concerns in the direction that this debate is heading and out hope is that this is political chaff.”

Wood wasn’t prepared to say that one candidate versus another is more at risk – though in the debate there is a clear candidate who is looking to expand onshore and offshore drilling: John McCain. McCain already started out with less than stellar gun credentials compared to the current administration (for all that Cheney doesn’t always make the smartest use of his guns). “We’ve had our disagreements with McCain over the years, people know what they are,” Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA, told me last month. “I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. Still there are vast areas of agreement over the years.” The group is unlikely to endorse McCain though plans a $40 million blitz against Obama.

LaPierrre pointed to Bill Clinton’s autobiography where the former president said he believed the Dems lost 18-22 seats in the House in 1994 because of hunters and gun rights activists after he signed the Brady hangun bill. Clinton also said he believed that Gore’s lack of outreach to the same group could have cost him three to six states in 2000, and the presidency. Which is why, perhaps, Hillary Clinton, spent so much time talking about guns that Obama mocked her for invoking Annie Oakley. Obama has his own awkwardness with guns: there’s that pesky 2000 questionnaire and his Supreme Court surprise. But when it comes to the environment, at least lately, he’s taken a much more conservationist track than McCain – a move that could help him with the disgruntled hook and bullet folks.

When I spoke with TU’s Wood a month ago he said the group was excited about both McCain and Obama’s records on global warming and conservation. Now, he warns there could be a backlash if the candidates aren’t careful. “They’re risking losing the sportsmen vote if they don’t advocate a sensible way to develop energy resources without risking further damage to fish and wildlife habitats,” Wood said.

The group – in conjunction with 300 other non-profits and sporting companies – recently proposed guidelines for energy development and have met with both campaigns and the leadership on the Hill, though they’ve received no support for the plan as of yet. If there is a move for increased drilling on Western lands, “God help us if that comes to pass,” Wood said. “Right now the forest service, half of its budget is spent fighting fire. The bureau of Land Management budget was cut in half the last four years and they have nowhere near the ability to handle the kind of development we’re already seeing. With these agencies budgets the way they are, fish and wildlife would clearly be sacrificed.” While millions of Americans drive to work and depend on their cars, there is a multi-billion dollar hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing industry that depends on pristine lands and waters — areas that have suffered under Bush. And they vote, too.