Since U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s election six years ago, arguably his greatest legislative achievement, however controversial, was the precedent-setting removal of gray wolves from the endangered species list. If it wasn’t evident already, the delisting, which Tester attached as a rider to an unrelated budget bill a year and a half ago, cemented the flat-topped organic farmer as a moderate red-state Democrat eager to broker bipartisan solutions. His reelection earlier in the month appeared to validate that approach.
All signs indicated that Tester would take a significant step toward scoring his second big, bipartisan legislative accomplishment when the Senate voted this week on his Sportsmen’s Act of 2012, a grab-bag of measures intended to enhance hunting and fishing opportunities around the country. Earlier in the month, the Senate had voted 92-5 to end debate on the bill. But on Nov. 26, the Sportsmen’s Act was thwarted by somewhat surprising opposition.
“It’s definitely stalled,” says Robert Saldin, a political science professor at the University of Montana. “There’s not an obvious path forward in the Senate.”
The bill would boost access to land, protect animal and fish habitat, encourage federal agencies to maintain shooting ranges, allow bow hunters to cross federal land where bow hunting isn’t allowed, exclude lead ammunition and fishing tackle from federal regulation, and allow hunters to bring home 41 polar bears shot in Canada before the bears were listed as a threatened species. As Tester said on the Senate floor on Monday, the bill is supported by about 50 organizations, ranging from The Nature Conservancy to the National Rifle Association, and it would reduce the deficit by $5 million over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office (PDF).
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said Monday he “strongly” favors most of the bill’s measures. Still, Sessions led the effort to block the proposal on the grounds that, because it raises revenue to pay for itself, it violates the Budget Control Act of 2011, which set federal spending limits as part of last year’s deal to end the debt-ceiling crisis. Sessions also said Tester’s bill violates the Constitution because all revenue-generating measures must originate in the U.S. House.
But the Sportsmen’s Act is also facing push-back due to a provision that would amend the Toxic Substances Control Act to exclude “shot, bullets and other projectiles, propellants, and primers.” The change would preempt efforts by groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity (PDF) to force the Environment Protection Agency to regulate lead ammo and fishing tackle.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., was the lone Democrat who voted “no” on Monday, citing a long list of evidence that suggests eating lead-contaminated meat can be harmful to people—especially children and pregnant women—and animals. In Boxer’s remarks submitted for the record, she quoted U.S. Geological Survey contaminants expert Barnett Rattner, who said in 2008: “Science is replete with evidence that ingestion of spent ammunition and fishing tackle can kill birds. The magnitude of poisoning in some species such as waterfowl, eagles, California condors, swans and loons, is daunting.”
“The federal government must be able to use all of the tools at its disposal to protect American families from consuming contaminated food,” Boxer wrote. “Therefore, we should not create unneeded exemptions that apply to lead and an unknown number of other contaminants.”
She offered an amendment, supported by more than 200 organizations—including Montana’s Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Wild Swan, Swan View Coalition, WildWest Institute and Women’s Voices for the Earth—that would strike the Toxic Substances Control Act exemption from Tester’s bill.
After Monday’s vote, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Jeff Miller wrote in an email to supporters, “We now have the opportunity to further educate the Senate and the general public on why an exemption under the Toxic Substances Control Act for lead ammunition and fishing sinkers (as well as a polar bear waiver under the Endangered Species Act) are horrible policy moves.”
The polar bear waiver refers not to new hunting opportunities, but would allow hunters who killed polar bears in Canada while it was still legal to remove them from deep freezers and bring them into the United States. Humane Society International says that provision seeks to “indulge a small group of wealthy trophy hunters who want to import polar bear trophies from Canada in defiance of current law.”
The Sportmen’s Act now joins Tester’s three-year-old Forest Jobs and Recreation Act as signature bipartisan proposals stuck in legislative limbo.
“I still think there’s reason to be optimistic for both of these pieces of legislation,” says Saldin. “There’s a broad enough coalition, I think, on both of these measures.”
How Tester can usher them through a divided Congress, and when, is anyone’s guess.