The Hunters’ Election: “We Think This Is the Most Important Election for Sportsmen in Our Lives”

While the presidential candidates clash over gun policy and environmental protections, the biggest concern for outdoorsmen and women might be how those fault lines divide our community

“I guess you’d call me a recovering Republican.”

That’s how Nick Siebrasse, a retired UPS driver from Havre, Montana, describes his political philosophy. Siebrasse commits to just enough construction work—light residential remodels, mainly—in retirement to leave him time to hunt and fish, mostly with his extended family.

“I grew up a rural Montana Republican,” Siebrasse tells me while we install grip bars in a tiled shower for our mutual friend, who just had his foot amputated due to diabetes-related complications. “But then I started looking around. I just don’t see how you can be a hunter or fisherman in America and vote Republican, not if you care about accessing public land, keeping our water clean, and keeping wildlife as a public, instead of a private, resource.”

On the other side of Montana, Gary Baxter says his political affiliation is also migrating. A lifelong hunter, Baxter hesitated talking to me because he’s not sure his staunchly Democratic family would understand his decision to support Donald Trump’s reelection bid. For Baxter, next month’s election turns on a single issue: guns.

“I just don’t trust Democrats in general and Biden in particular when it comes to protecting my right to own and use guns,” says Baxter. “I think they’d just as soon that we [gun owners] went away. I think other issues will take care of themselves, but I’m less sure when it comes to guns.”

Those two perspectives—from fellow Western hunters, gun owners, and lifelong outdoorsmen—pretty well frame this presidential election, when viewed through the lens of issues that matter to America’s sportsmen and women. From national firearms policy and environmental regulations to the next administration’s regard for public land and resource management, there’s a lot at stake for the places and gear that fuel our passions.

As I interviewed sources from both the Trump and Biden camps for this piece, and struggled to understand their rationale behind sound bites and campaign sloganeering, I realized how intractable many of these positions are. They go well beyond the issue—whether guns or wetlands—to occupy a sort of stand-in for a whole set of positions that have nothing to do with hunting or fishing.

So, why should you read the next few thousand words? Because it will help you better understand your fellow hunters and anglers. You’re probably like me, surrounded by friends and neighbors and hunting buddies who are uneasy not only about this election, but about the canyon that’s widening between all of us around politics, identity, belief, and even zip code. Sportsmen’s issues are just a sedimentary layer of that canyon. They help frame what the Nov. 3 election is about, though they’re also only the most visible layer of a deeper strata of beliefs.

Take guns, for example. Many of the sources I interviewed say that guns are the central issue of the election. But for many of these folks guns are symbols of an orderly society based on laws and consequences that many political conservatives feel is under attack by street riots, lack of respect for police, and an erosion of the rule of law and respect for authority and history.

On the other hand, when political liberals talk about curtailing oil drilling on public land, that’s often shorthand for a wider political philosophy that wants the government to mitigate climate change and regulate fundamental parts of the economy.

This divide among sportsmen is nothing new. As a community of hunters and anglers, we’ve lived with this tension for generations. Many of us abide by a live-and-let-live philosophy, and guns are a perfect tool (and expression) of self-reliance and individualism. For others of us, the clean water and functional habitat that produces the game we chase is an example of the power of collective action. We wouldn’t have these widely beneficial ecosystems if we hadn’t limited development and the selfish ambition of capitalism.

But how we arrived at this moment isn’t as important as where we’re going. And if both sides of the political divide are correct, this is the most important election in our memory. If this story does anything, I hope it prompts you to look at issues beyond what you’re being told and to examine each candidates’ records and policies.

The Great Gun Divide

“What’s at stake in this election? Nothing short of the Second Amendment,” says Larry Keane, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. His job, and that of the NSSF, is to represent the gun industry and to lobby decision-makers on firearms policy. “Vice President Biden and Senator Harris have been clear—along with Senator Schumer—that they will ban modern sporting rifles, ban standard-size magazines, they’ll confiscate lawfully-purchased firearms, pursue gun registration, and they’ll pass universal background checks. We’re very concerned. We think this is the most important election for sportsmen in our lives.”

Keane’s perspectives are shared by many gun owners, who see in Biden’s official campaign document confirmation of their fears of widespread firearms restrictions in a Biden presidency. Biden’s campaign platform calls for a return to the Clinton-era ban on “the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines,” along with a buy-back program to reduce the number of “weapons of war currently on our streets.” The program “will give individuals who now possess assault weapons or high-capacity magazines two options: sell the weapons to the government, or register them under the National Firearms Act.”

If those statements, along with Biden’s proposal to strip firearms manufacturers of civil-liability protections for the misuse of their products, concern the estimated 100 million Americans who own guns, they’re especially problematic for the owners of 20 million or so modern sporting rifles, the industry term for semi-automatic guns modeled after the military’s AR-15.

But Martin Heinrich thinks that highlighting Biden’s appetite for prohibiting the sale or use of guns is merely trotting out a time-honored Republican Party boogieman.

“The NRA has been very good about crying wolf about gun-grabbers over and over for decades, but my gun cabinet just keeps getting bigger,” says Heinrich, New Mexico’s junior U.S. senator and a member of Sportsmen and Sportswomen for Biden. “At what point do you realize that it’s crying wolf instead of an actual threat? Look at what the gun-rights folks said about Obama. They said he’s going to take all your guns away. It just didn’t happen.”

Heinrich supports some limitations on firearms; in fact, he says we already have them.

“If you listen only to folks in D.C., you’d think that background checks are a big deal,” says Heinrich. “But my constituents know it’s a normal part of buying a firearm, and that buying a rifle at a gun show shouldn’t be any different than buying one at Sportsman’s Warehouse. My kids are passionate hunters. They grew up eating elk and javelina, and they don’t understand this all-or-nothing debate when it comes to firearms. But they do have to deal with school shootings as a real issue, and they question the need for a hunter to have a 20- or 30-round magazine in a rifle.”

For Ryan Busse, the power of guns in this election isn’t through public policy, but rather potent symbolism.

“Biden and the Democrats are not going to take away your guns, period,” says Busse, who recently stepped down as vice president for sales at Kimber Firearms and serves on the national Sportsmen and Sportswomen for Biden committee. “The other side wants you to believe that guns are crosses—that they have that sort of deep religious significance. I love my guns, too, but I don’t for a minute think that they’d be taken away if Biden is elected.”

But Keane says the judicial system may have the final word on gun regulations proposed by the legislative or executive branches of government, and he’s worried that a Democrat president would appoint Supreme Court justices who might want to reconsider landmark gun rulings. That includes District of Columbia v. Heller, which held that the Constitution’s Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms, as opposed to the collective right of a sanctioned militia. The likely Senate confirmation of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett could defuse Keane’s concerns in the near term, but he says Supreme Court actions on gun rights remains a potent danger.

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“Even if the Senate does confirm Judge Barrett, the next President and Senate that appoints subsequent justices could be open to taking Second Amendment cases,” says Keane. “If that happens, the future of the Heller decision is at risk, and how they interpret the Second Amendment is at stake.”

One segment of the gun-owning public that might influence the outcome of the election is the 5 million (and growing) Americans who bought a firearm for the first time in 2020. Many of these folks are suburban women who bought a gun for personal protection and haven’t traditionally been active in gun-rights issues, or self-identified as part of the gun bloc.

“The demographics [of gun owners] are changing,” says Keane. “The fastest increase is among Blacks, and a large increase is with Asian Americans. More gun owners are minorities, more are women, more are urban residents. Will that help change gun policy? It takes time for these new gun owners to become engaged politically, but that’s why we educate voters about where candidates stand on these issues, and to encourage them to vote their interests.”

It’s also worth noting that while gun issues mobilize many sportsmen and women, they are not a leading issue for many Americans. A Pew Research Center poll shows that gun policy is only the seventh most important issue to registered voters, between foreign policy and racial inequity.

Resource Protection vs. Extraction

For Busse, the intense focus on guns is a deliberate attempt by Republicans to distract from what he thinks is the real issue in this election: wholesale rollbacks by the Trump administration of environmental rules that have allowed America to have a strong economy plus some of the world’s cleanest water and air, and abundant wildlife habitat. He thinks all those values have been eroded by Trump’s “energy dominance” cabinet and agency directors.

“I can’t believe the degree to which sportsmen are convinced to vote against their self-interests in this election,” says Busse. “It comes back to a divide we’ve been riding for decades: Would you rather have your guns, or would you rather have healthy habitat and accessible public lands where you can use your guns?”

It’s a pendulum that Tracy Stone-Manning says has swung too far away from healthy ecosystems under the Trump Administration.

“This administration is unbalanced in innumerable ways,” says Stone-Manning, former director of Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality and former chief of staff for Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. A longtime hunter and river-restoration expert, she now serves as director of public lands at the National Wildlife Federation. She cites revisions to Clean Water Act regulations (which under Trump have changed the definition of federally regulated waterways), rollbacks of environmental protections of surface water in coal country, and preference of “dirty” energy over renewable energy.

“At every turn, this administration has favored natural-resource extraction over natural-resource protection,” says Stone-Manning. “Most hunters and anglers in this country understand that we need a balanced approach if we’re going to pass these resources on to our kids.”

Stone-Manning says that the Trump administration has confused its “energy dominance” agenda with economic prosperity. She thinks that a Biden administration can both improve the environment and stoke the economy.

“There is literal restoration work to do on the ground,” says Stone-Manning, another member of Sportsmen and Sportswomen for Biden. “We have an economic crisis because of the pandemic, but we have a wildlife crisis that’s harder to see; experts say we could lose 30 percent of our wildlife by 2050. We can address both [crises] by putting people to work in our forests, to create better wildlife habitat, create a ton of jobs, ensure that forests continue to deliver clean water, and help our communities closest to the forests withstand wildfire. Upland hunters know we have a scourge on our landscape in the form of invasive cheatgrass. If we tackle that problem by putting people to work on the ground, we help solve a fire problem, an economic problem, and a wildlife problem. But what we cannot do is roll back regulations to benefit industry and big donors, and then leave the rural landscape and economy in worse shape than we found it. That’s not balanced.”

It’s simply untrue that the Trump Administration has turned its back on topics that are important to hunters and anglers, says Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. The Trump Administration has pursued, either through legislation or by executive-branch order, a number of sportsmen- and sportswomen-friendly policies and agendas, he notes.

“Let’s start with the very first hours of the first day of the term of my predecessor, Ryan Zinke,” says Bernhardt. “He overturned the ban on lead ammunition and fishing tackle on federal land that was snuck into law at literally the eleventh hour of the Obama Administration.”

Also on his first day in office, Zinke issued Secretarial Order No. 3347 that expanded “access to public lands and increase[d] hunting, fishing, and recreation opportunities nationwide.” More recently, Bernhardt signed a secretarial order that directs the Bureau of Land Management to “adequately weigh public access for outdoor recreation—including hunting and fishing—when determining the appropriateness of the disposal or exchange of public lands.”

Bernhardt also ordered the expansion of hunting and fishing on nearly 150 national wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries. In all, 2.3 million acres of additional federal land were opened to fishing and hunting. It’s fair to note that many of these areas have historically been closed to those activities because refuge and hatchery managers didn’t think hunting and fishing were compatible with the public purpose of those properties.

“When it comes to the ability of hunters and anglers to access federal lands, we’ve adopted a policy that assumes the land is open,” says Bernhardt. “That might seem like a small thing, but most prior administrations have assumed that federal lands were closed to these activities unless someone petitioned for them to be open. I think the area where that change is most visible is recreational shooting on public land. We assume that land to be open unless there’s a valid reason for it to be closed.”

Beyond access issues, Bernhardt pointed to the administration’s commitment to funding big-game migration corridors and in implementing the provisions of the Great American Outdoors Act, which fully funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund and committed nearly $10 billion for infrastructure in national parks and recreation areas.

“Opening public ground for hunting and fishing is a big deal,” says Kirstie Pike, founder and CEO of Prois Hunting for Women, a gear company based in Gunnison, Colorado. Pike is a member of the advisory board of Sportsmen for Trump. “It’s a big deal for me personally, but it’s a big deal for my business. Let’s face it: hunters and anglers pay for public land, and public land should be available for public use.”

Senator Heinrich, though, says that confirming that public land is public is an example of the administration following public sentiment rather than exercising real leadership. And he says it’s obscured Trump’s anti-sportsman agenda. For starters, he points to the Republican Party’s platform, which supports turning over federal lands to states. But beyond that rhetorical stance is measurable policy.

“I sit on the Migratory Bird Commission, and the administration has rewritten the essence of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by allowing unlimited take of birds from industrial activities like oil drilling or wind farms,” says Heinrich. “They’re saying you can kill as many birds as you want. In what way is that pro-sportsman?”

Waters of the United States

One issue that came up repeatedly in these interviews is how federal oversight of surface water might be managed in either a second Trump administration or a Biden administration. Context for the discussion is the Obama administration’s Waters of the United States rule. In essence, the Obama administration expanded the definition of federally protected water to include some ephemeral waters such as sloughs and wetlands. While these are key habitats for wildlife and help filter ground water, many agricultural producers and energy developers say the new rules constrained their ability to farm or drill. In Trump’s first term, regulators adjusted this Waters of the United States rule to apply mainly to “navigable waters,” to the relief of many industries.

But the issue—wildlife habitat versus industrial development—is a wedge that has widened political and policy differences in the sportsmen and women’s community.

“We’ve been thankful to see a rolling back of onerous regulations early in the [Trump] administration,” says the NSSF’s Keane. “That helped get the economy going. By no means are we in favor of dirty water and dirty air, but there has to be a balance, and some of the things we saw in the Obama administration, and which I think you’d see again in a Biden administration, are troubling. For instance, when a water puddle becomes federally regulated.”

Heinrich, though, says the original Waters of the United States had impacts well beyond the definition of “puddles.”

“In New Mexico, where we have so many closed basins, the rewriting of the Clean Water Act wiped out protections for many waterways that provide essential wildlife habitat.”

Personality and Process

A couple times in our conversation, Heinrich stopped to qualify or tone down his comments. Finally, he pointed out that there is common ground to be found.

“All this rancor isn’t very productive,” he says. “I’m actually more optimistic about the role that conservation and specifically the hunting/fishing communities are playing now today compared to when I was first elected to Congress [in 2012]. I was surprised when I got to Washington how partisan the issue of public land was because I knew that in my district Republicans care deeply about public lands and hunting and fishing. Because of a lot of work by those who want to get things done, hunting, fishing, and sportsman’s issues are about the only truly bipartisan thing in this town.”

He points to the passage earlier this year of the Great American Outdoors Act, and the passage of the 2019 “Dingell Act” that established new federal wildlands and national monuments, reauthorized indefinitely the landmark Land and Water Conservation Fund, and codified the “assumed open” status of public lands that Bernhardt mentioned, and allowed more federal excise tax money to go to shooting ranges and hunter education.

“Yes, we remain hyper-divided on firearms,” says Heinrich, “but I think sportsman’s issues in general have been an island of productivity in a challenging time.”

Kirstie Pike is also ready for a return to balance, but she worries that after Trump, a Biden administration would push the pendulum too far toward public-land preservation rather than management.

“I think a lot of Biden supporters look at environmental rollbacks under Trump and say the sky is falling or rivers are burning,” she says. “Will there be an impact? Maybe, but it’s down the road so far that it’s hard to say what causes it. On the other hand, a lot of Obama regulations put a stranglehold on development and growth. I can ride the fence like nobody else, and instead of this all-or-nothing when it comes to either side, I want some balance. We need to do what’s best and reasonable, but also sustainable.”

Tracy Stone-Manning, the former Montana DEQ director, also seeks balance.

“I’d observe that every administration says it tries to balance environmental protections with economic progress,” says Stone-Manning. “This one hasn’t, and they’ve been vocal about how they are unbalanced. I’d also observe that nobody likes regulators. I get that. We’re the schoolmarms telling people “no”. No, you can’t put lead and arsenic in the water. People take for granted that when they turn on their taps that they’ll get clean water, but it’s regulation that allows us to do that. You don’t like regulation? Go to Mexico and turn on that tap, and see how that works for you.”

Sportsmen as Key Votes

President Trump’s son, Don Trump, Jr., just released a political advertisement detailing the administration’s achievements for sportsmen and women. He touted the opening of refuges and hatcheries, the assumed-open management of public lands, and the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act. Meanwhile, Sportsmen and Women for Biden is ramping up its advocacy work on behalf of their candidate. Both campaigns are heavy on appearances in rural Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all states that could tip the election to either candidates.

In many ways, Trump can credit rural voters in those states with his 2016 election. He successfully wooed them by recognizing the outsize role that guns, personal liberty, and deregulation play in those communities, and one of the subtexts of the 2020 election is a nod to rural culture.

You can hear this politics of identity in Keane’s comments:

“You have Biden from the East Coast, Harris from California. Pelosi from California. Schumer from New York,” says Keane. “These coastal elites are running the country. You see in the Electoral College map this divide between urban and rural America. That’s one of the reasons Trump won. The rest of the country feels like their interests aren’t respected by elites.”

Heinrich laughs at any characterization of Biden as “elite.”

“You’re never going to find a more genuine blue-collar roots person than Joe Biden,” says Heinrich. “Period. But this election shouldn’t be about personal identity. It should be a president that wants both Republicans and Democrats to succeed. When I talk about restoration of balance in Washington, that’s what I mean more than any specific policy. We need to be able to succeed together, and I think that’s an expectation that still exists in rural communities, in our sportsman’s community.”

Happily, says Pike, that “sportsman’s” community is changing, and she says looking forward there’s more room for diversity and nuance. She points to the growing number of women gun-owners, the rise in urban hunters, and the growing recognition that healthy wildlife habitat and accessible public land is an engine of economic revival across much of rural America.

“I don’t see our community as being defined by good old boys any longer,” says Pike, whose apparel is designed for women. “I live in this sisterhood of crazy women. They all have their teeth and they’re well-educated, and they understand that a community is only as strong as its ability to be civil and respectful. I’d say that our community—and I mean our larger sportsman and woman community—needs to concentrate on all the things that we share rather than stressing all our differences. If we can do that, then I think we can function and grow and thrive, no matter who is in political office.”