Last month's election will go down as one of the most hard-fought in this nation's history. When the votes were counted, the pro-gun Republican Party was in control of both houses of Congress. Press releases from the National Rifle Association and the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance suggested the results were a major victory for sportsmen.
That's not entirely correct. While the election appears to be a victory for second-amendment rights, the challenges facing sportsmen and wildlife are ongoing.
With Republicans dominating both houses of Congress and the White House, it's unlikely that the next two years will produce many new bills aimed at inhibiting sportsmen's rights to purchase and own firearms. Unfortunately, the new Congress has so much on its plate that other issues important to sportsmen are likely to wind up on the back burner.
The sagging economy, the war on terrorism and the possible military action in Iraq are likely to divert attention -- and funding -- from the issues critical to the future of wildlife populations. It's up to us to see that doesn't happen and to hold lawmakers on both sides of the aisle accountable to the sportsmen they so vigorously promised to represent in Washington.
The new Congress will determine the fate of many wildlife-related issues. The Clean Water Authority Restoration Act will have a major impact on the remaining wetlands in this country, which in turn will determine the future of waterfowl populations. That piece of legislation would, if passed, wipe out a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that eliminated protection for non-navigable waters, which was contrary to the intent of Congress when passing the Clean Water Act 30 years ago. Anyone who votes against this bill is anti-sportsman, even if he or she got an A-plus rating from the NRA.
The fate of the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), which would provide states with $350 million annually for wildlife habitat through royalties collected from off-shore drilling, is yet to be determined, but proponents fear Congress may opt to siphon those royalties for other purposes.
The new Congress likely will consider a bill that would open tax-supported public grasslands to unregulated grazing, which would reduce wildlife populations dramatically. Politicians who claim to be friends of sportsmen but support unregulated grazing at the expense of wildlife are talking out of both sides of their mouth.
Oil exploration, logging and mining on public lands will be other controversial issues, and all can have a long-term impact on wildlife populations. Some lawmakers will talk about "wise use" or "multiple use" of public lands, but it's been our experience that multiple use usually favors the extractive industries, not wildlife and sportsmen.
During the next two years the federal government will likely be asked to dig into its piggy bank for hundreds of millions of dollars to study and combat chronic wasting disease. It's a regional problem now, but unchecked it could threaten the well being of our deer and elk herds by the end of the decade. Lawmakers who reject funding for CWD research are not friends of sportsmen.
This year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service promoted its 100-year-old National Wildlife Refuge system, which now boasts close to 95 million acres of wildlife habitat. What the Service's press releases fail to mention is that it has a limited budget to operate and maintain those refuges because Congress has been unwilling to cough up necessary funding.
Some of our lakes and rivers are in pathetic condition, and will get worse should the administration or Congress weaken the Clean Water Act. Will the pro-gun Republicans do what's best for wildlife populations, or will they turn their backs on the sportsmen who sent them to Washington on the issues that matter most? Will the Democrats, who learned their lesson in 2000 and avoided the issue of gun control in the 2002 election, renew their attacks on the second amendment now that the polls are closed? For those who care only about gun ownership, the election clearly was a victory. But for sportsmen concerned about wildlife and the habitat it needs to survive, the job isn't over; it's just beginning.
Babe Winkelman's "Good Fishing" television show appears on Fox Sports Network, The Outdoor Channel, WGN-TV and the USA Network.
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