Tester courts sportsmen in '12 with hunting, gun rights push

E&E Daily

by Phil Taylor

Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester has hit the ground running as the new chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, having introduced at least half a dozen bills in the past few months to increase access to hunting lands, prevent U.S. EPA from regulating lead bullets and promote gun rights, among other things.

In doing so, the freshman senator is aiming to prove his mettle with a politically powerful hunting and angling community in Montana as he faces a tough re-election bid against Montana GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg, who has introduced his own bills supporting hunting and gun rights.

Tester last week introduced the "Target Practice and Marksmanship Training Act," which would give states greater flexibility to use federal wildlife resources to establish recreational shooting areas. He also inserted language into a bill last week to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund — a major priority of sportsmen — that would require a percentage of land acquisition funds go to enhance access for sportsmen.

Earlier Tester proposals have sought to prevent EPA from banning lead in ammunition, which many hunters say would raise costs and is unsupported by science. He also successfully inserted language in the 2011 continuing resolution to lift Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves, a popular move among Montana hunters who blame the animals for depleting big-game herds.

While bills to promote off-highway vehicles, LWCF and conservation easements are reintroductions from last Congress, most of the other hunting and public lands measures are new, said spokesman Aaron Murphy. More bills are on the way in the coming weeks, he said.

The proposals largely flow from a March meeting Tester held with the Montana Sportsmen's Advisory Panel, a 19-member group that includes a diverse range of hunting and wildlife interests, Murphy said.

"Their biggest issue — numbers one, two and three — was access, access, access," he said. "It's a huge deal in Montana."

The support of hunters and anglers could be crucial to election hopes in Montana, where conservation, energy development and wildlife protections are regular discussion topics among voters.

"It's probably more important for Tester being a Democrat than it would be for a Republican who may be more naturally aligned with hunters," said Robert Saldin, a political science professor at the University of Montana. "Out here almost everyone hunts regardless of party or ideological orientation."

Rehberg, a six-term congressman and millionaire real estate businessman, maintains a razor-thin lead over Tester in recent polls. The race is closely watched nationwide because it could determine whether Republicans are able to topple Democrats' 51-47 majority in the next Congress.

While big-ticket items such as federal spending, taxes and immigration will likely loom large in Tester-Rehberg debates, Saldin said natural resources issues including wilderness and hunting will resonate strongly with most voters.

"For Tester to be so closely aligned with hunters and fishermen, that's very popular and politically smart," he said.

Sportsmen in the state expressed a range of views on Tester's record on hunting, gun rights and public lands policy. The conservation-oriented among them appear most supportive of Tester's work, while others say Rehberg has taken stands they prefer.

Craig Sharpe, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, said Tester has supported the principle of fair chase, is concerned about diminishing public access and pushed a balanced wolf bill to return management to the state. Tester is also concerned with private landowner issues and appears committed to ensuring funding for farm bill conservation programs, he said.

"He has been doing a commendable job on our behalf," Sharpe said. "Plain and simple, he is sensitive to the issues of sportspersons, and there are several good examples."

Others note that Tester — who grew up fishing in Montana's Bear Paw Mountains, according to Murphy — has supported hunting and angling needs since his days in the state Legislature.

His chairmanship of the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus is a result of his life-long views and record as a lawmaker, said Bill Geer, climate change initiative manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

"It's not new to him, that's just where his heart is," he said. "Senator Tester is very pro-sportsmen. He's very good on hunting and fishing and wildlife conservation in general issues."

But those views are not shared by Bill Merrill, president of Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, who argued Tester took a soft stance on delisting the wolf. Rehberg, he said, took bold steps to remove ESA protections for the predator nationwide, despite protests from the environmental community.

"Jon Tester is no friend of sportsmen in my opinion," said Merrill, who noted that most of the sportsmen he knew would be voting for Rehberg in 2012. "[Tester] is very liberal and very friendly to the NGO environmentalist extremists groups."

In addition to hunting issues, Tester is also pushing his keystone "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act," a bill that would designate nearly 700,000 acres of new wilderness while mandating 100,000 acres of mechanical timber harvests.

Rehberg has staked his opposition to the bill on grounds that it is opposed by a majority of Montanans. Tester's camp insists creating more wilderness and conservation areas will promote hunting and angling opportunities in the state, a view shared by many conservation and outfitting groups.

Observers note that the success of the act, as well as Tester's opposition to curbing EPA's regulation of greenhouse gases, could be pivotal in the 2012 race (E&E Daily, May 6).