HAGERSTOWN — HAGERSTOWN - Except when they squeeze off a shot at game, Maryland hunters tend to be a pretty quiet bunch. They don't rally or boycott. They rarely engage in letters-to-the-editor campaigns or hand out literature at polling places.
That could change next Sunday at the North American Rod and Gun Club.
Hunters from the western and eastern ends of the state are converging here to decide how to take on Gov. Parris N. Glendening over his anti-hunting stance.
The most controversial proposal would have Maryland hunters taking their business to neighboring states. By boycotting Maryland licenses, sportsmen and women would lock the Department of Natural Resources in a financial stranglehold.
Sixty-one percent of the money to run DNR hunting programs comes from license fees. The federal government is good for 25 percent of the budget. The rest, as public television likes to say, "comes from viewers like you," regular folks who make donations.
Supporters of a boycott believe that by cutting off the revenue they'll show they mean business.
"It's about as good a time as any to rally," said Steve Palmer, president of the Washington County Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs.
The federation is an umbrella group that represents 21 clubs with 4,000 members. Other clubs in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore are on board. "It's going to be a grassroots effort," Palmer said. "The turnout will determine how fast and far we go."
One group not buying into a boycott is the statewide Maryland Sportsmen's Association.
"We don't work that way. We build bridges, not burn them," said its president, Tim Lambert.
He is not pleased with the way Glendening is running DNR, but he says trying to cripple the agency is not the way to go.
"We're all frustrated," Lambert said. "But you don't sever the lines of communication. If you're not invited back to the table, you don't accomplish anything."
Hunters are facing a real head-scratcher. If they don't holler, they're ignored. If they holler, they risk waking up animal-rights activists, who know a thing or two about letter-writing campaigns and making politicians squeal.
Glendening has spent six years snuggling up to suburbanites who elected him and hate hunting. Hunters voted for Ellen Sauerbrey. When she lost, so did they. That's politics.
But hunters put a lot of money into DNR, and they ought to get some return. Instead, they believe the governor has gone out of his way to stick it to them.
DNR staffers around the state have felt the shift in the political winds, but they won't talk about it publicly for fear of damaging their careers.
Glendening twice ignored the advice of his Wildlife Advisory Commission, rejecting limited seasons for bear and migratory Canada geese. He convened a task force to investigate "non-lethal" forms of wildlife management as a way to avoid the least expensive form of management: hunting.
But perhaps his worst transgression in the eyes of Palmer and his supporters occurred late last year, when DNR changed its level of support for youth hunting education programs.
"DNR complains it doesn't have enough money, but then it walks away from programs for youth and women. Where's the intelligence in that?" Palmer asks.
Mike Slattery, director of DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Division, says he is committing the same level of staff to youth education, but he wants local sportsmen's groups to organize programs.
"The youth hunting programs are not falling by the wayside," he insisted. "Our hunting public can be very complacent. We want to be sure that if we are involving our staff and time, we're going to get a good turnout."
Lambert says he worries that Palmer's boycott plan could have unintended consequences.
"It could backfire," he said. "It really doesn't do anything for our cause and the anti-hunting crowd can sit back and enjoy this."
Hunters and politics
How engaged is the hunting community in the political process?
Plenty, according to a national survey done just after the November election for the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation:
Ninety-three percent of the 1,023 hunters surveyed said they voted in November. Forty-six percent said they were Republicans, 29 percent independents and 18 percent Democrats.
Sixty-eight percent said they voted for George W. Bush and 15 percent for Al Gore.
The top three threats to the future of hunting, according to those surveyed, are: development destroying animal habitat; pressure from animals-rights activists; and restrictions on access to federal public lands.
Not surprisingly, 78 percent said gun control is "much" or "somewhat" more important to them now. But here's an interesting twist - while 53 percent said they would oppose a candidate who favored gun control, 34 percent said they would support a candidate in favor of gun control as long as that candidate did not want to restrict firearms used by hunters and sport shooters.
Melinda Gable, executive director of the foundation, says that this is the first time a survey has tried to determine hunters' voting patterns.
"That's why we did this survey," she said. "Not to say [hunters] vote one way or the other, but to say they do vote and they do pay attention to the issues and those who best represent them.
She continued: "You always hear about the labor vote or the senior voting bloc, but the hunters are a voting bloc, too. If you talk about sportsmen as compared to other heavyweights who walk the halls of Congress, we're there. We're a force to be reckoned with."