By Chris Lamphere

Proposal G has a legacy; it has to be protected

Imagine a world where hunting and fishing regulations are established through a process similar to electing a public official, where grandstanding, hyperbole and backroom deals aren’t just common practice but are virtually the only path to success — that world doesn’t include Proposal G.

In 2021, fresh off one of the most divisive election cycles in recent history, it’s easy to imagine how nightmarish such as system would be, but 25 years ago in 1996, it was how things were done in Michigan and elsewhere.

To change a game law in Michigan, someone could simply collect enough signatures and place a referendum on the ballot for a public vote.

One such referendum was Proposal D, which sought to prohibit the use of bait piles and dogs for hunting black bear — techniques seen as cruel and unsporting by most of the proposal’s supporters, although the initial impetus behind the referendum was a landowner who had a problem with bear hounds trespassing on his property.

Similar types of proposals involving other game species were placed before voters in several other states that year, most of which were backed by animal rights groups energized by an unsuccessful attempt in California to repeal the ban on hunting mountain lions in the state.

Bob Garner, then-host of the television program “Michigan Out of Doors,” said the proposal terrified many in the bear hunting community for the obvious reason that locating a bear in the wild without bait or dogs is extremely difficult and could very well have led to a massive drop off in harvest success rates.
The larger issue that galvanized hunting and angling groups against Proposal D, however, was how wildlife and habitat management efforts all over the country were increasingly being dictated by special interest groups and radical activists rather than by experts in the field.

Enter Proposal G, which was drafted by a large and diverse coalition of conservation groups led by Michigan United Conservation Clubs, Michigan Bear Hunters Association, Safari Club International and others known collectively as Citizens for Professional Wildlife Management (CPWM).

Proposal G sought to vest exclusive authority for all hunting regulations, including bear hunting, in the Michigan Natural Resources Commission. Crucially, Proposal G would also require the NRC to utilize “principles of sound scientific management” in regulating all game hunting and require public meetings prior to the issuance of any orders by the NRC.

Garner said Proposal G would effectively remove the politics and emotion from any consideration about game policies in Michigan but as supporters of the proposal quickly discovered, convincing the public to go along with the idea was going to be an uphill battle.

Proposal GUniting for a common cause

Dennis Knapp worked for MUCC in 1996 and was heavily involved in the discussions surrounding both Prop D and Prop G.

Months before the election, Knapp remembers that CPWM conducted phone surveys to gauge public opinion about the use of bait and dogs to hunt for bears. The results were grim: by a nearly two-to-one margin, people disapproved of both practices.

Thus, bear hunting became a focal point illustrating the difference between sound science and proven harvest technique versus how people with little knowledge of wildlife management felt about certain practices.

“We started to hone our messages,” Knapp said. “That professional management was better than management by emotion, politics or whatever else.”

Crafting the message was easy, but garnering support from the numerous disparate conservation groups to unite behind it would be a tall order.

To help bridge the divide between the fractured conservation groups in Michigan, CPWM brought in Ron Lundberg, an avid hunter and leader in Safari Club International.

“Ron was good at getting people to see the big picture,” Knapp said. “To understand where each other was coming from. Ron was really critical for the campaign.”

With Lundberg’s help, CPWM hit the ground running, spreading their message far and wide through any medium at their disposal, including television and radio interviews, newspaper editorials and campaign signs with the simple and memorable slogan, “Proposal D is dangerous!”

The message highlighted the importance of relying on expertise when managing wildlife, with a special emphasis on bears.

“We helped the public understand that the bear population was healthy and vigorous,” Knapp said. “That bears were in no danger of being depleted (as a result of baiting or hunting with dogs). Without these harvest methods (keeping the population in check), there would actually be more conflict between humans and bears.”

Through a statewide raffle program where people could buy a $5 ticket and potentially win 40 acres and a log cabin in the Upper Peninsula, along with other fundraising efforts, Knapp said they were able to generate around $1.7 million for the campaign.

This groundswell of support for Prop G and against Prop D came at a time when the Prop D campaign was losing steam. Knapp said the timing of the campaign was very strategic and likely played a role in the eventual outcome of the election, which was a reversal of the survey conducted earlier in the year: Prop D failed by a margin of 61.7% to 38.3% while Prop G passed by a margin of 68.7% to 31.3%.

Legacy of Proposal G

While the passage of Prop G safeguarded the professional management of Michigan’s wildlife and wild places for the time being, supporters remain vigilant of future challenges to the status quo.

After all, Prop G is a law just like any other, and laws change all the time.

“That vulnerability remains,” Knapp said. “It’s always a precarious process. That’s why it’s incumbent on hunters to maintain a good image and ethics … look how polarized everything is right now. Groups can spread almost any message they want on social media, and it can become very influential on people’s opinions. I think (conservationists) have to be very careful about focusing on the things we all have in common and staying united because history can repeat itself.”

Amy Trotter, executive director of MUCC, agreed that conservationists should remain in lockstep on certain issues, including the importance of leaving wildlife and habitat management decisions to the experts.

“MUCC membership has always been opposed to ballot box biology,” Trotter said. “Prop G is one safeguard against that, and so are watchdog groups like MUCC. We don’t believe (that wildlife and habitat management decisions) should be one person’s preference. We believe the NRC should be making those decisions. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s better than trying to convince politicians and educating the general public on activities they may never do.”

Trotter also agreed wholeheartedly with Knapp that hunters, anglers, trappers and all other conservationists need to be very cognizant of the image and message they convey to the public; now more than ever, it seems, as mounting a defense to a measure as Prop D would probably be a lot more difficult and costly today.

“We can be our own worst enemies,” Trotter said. “Someone can make a post or video that doesn’t paint the rest of us in the most positive light, and it’s so easy to take something like that and use it out of context. It never used to be that way.”

For that reason, Trotter said the messaging campaigns of groups like the Michigan Wildlife Council will continue to be critical in the coming years.

“They’re keeping that buzz going about the positive attributes (of hunters, anglers and other conservationists),” Trotter said. “We need that positive valence when we come to these types of contentious ballot discussions.”