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House may change environmental referendums

February 11, 1999
By: Clayton Bellamy
State Capital Bureau
Links: HJR 26

JEFFERSON CITY - House leaders, fueled by fear that Missouri voters will repeal animal trapping rights, are backing a proposed constitutional amendment that would alter the referendum process.

The proposed amendment would require a 2/3 majority to pass any referendum related to the Department of Conservation. Currently, referendum initiatives require only a simple majority to pass.

Voters in California and Colorado have recently restricted hunting and trapping rights through the referendum process. Amendment proponents are trying to keep that from happening in Missouri.

"We have very professional wildlife management in the Conservation Department that has done an excellent job," said Rep. Chuck Purgason, D-Caulfield, who introduced the resolution. "We want conservation to continue being managed with science and not by the feelings of the voters."

Any proposition to ban hunting or trapping, he said, would probably pass in the big cities and fail everywhere else. "The small population of trappers could be overwhelmed by the population of big cities," he said.

The House speaker and both the Republican and Democratic leaders have signed on to co-sponsor the proposed constitutional amendment.

Roger Pryor, spokesman for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, opposes the resolution.

"It's an unwarranted attack on the referendum initiative," Pryor said. "The irony is that it would take only a basic majority to require a two-thirds majority."

Pryor added that his group does not oppose hunting or trapping.

Rep. Patrick Dougherty, D-St. Louis, questioned the motivation of the backers of the proposal.

"Why do they feel the need to protect the constituents from themselves?" he asked. "This amendment would thwart the will of the people."

Purgason said unscientific wildlife management can have grave effects. He cited a referendum banning mountain lion hunting in California that has seriously reduced populations of the threatened Sierra Bighorn Sheep. Rising numbers of mountain lions have led to more sheep being taken as prey.

Doug Updike, spokesman of the California Fish and Game Department, cautiously corroborated Purgason's claim.

"The main cause of high mortality rate of the Bighorn Sheep has been mountain lion predation," Updike said. "But, hunting doesn't always end predation."

Updike added that only an isolated few lions hunt the sheep, and before the 1990 initiative, the department had been allowed to eliminate troublesome mountain lions. "The initiative has caused the sheep trouble in that we can no longer eliminate the offending lions," he said.