The U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance is the eye-in-the-sky for hunters, the watchdog group fighting back against the "antis," as animal rights activists who hate hunting are called. The group guards the backs of sportsmen nationwide.
"We're in business to combat the anti-hunting groups," said Rick Story, senior vice president of the alliance. "That's all we do."
The U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance is a 29-year-old, Columbus, Ohio-based organization that monitors threats to sportsmen and hunting throughout the United States. The current-day threat to the future of hunting is greater than ever, Story said recently at an outdoor writers conference in South Dakota. More than ever, he said, extremist animal rights groups are organized, well-funded and willing to attack all aspects of hunting.
"We fight these people in the courts, in the legislature, in the Congress and in the court of public opinion," Story said.
Calling such groups as PETA and the Humane Society of the United States "more and more onerous," Story decried the apathy of hunters and said the antis' outlook of hands-off everything contradicts sound conservation policy.
"We see that as a major, major threat," he said.
The U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance - which does not have the name recognition of a PETA or Humane Society - is probably the best friend hunters have.
The group does a remarkable job monitoring even the smallest developments that might harm hunters. This means that the group's contacts (local spies of sorts) pounce on information rapidly. If a bill is filed in a state legislature, the alliance is on it, often seeking to have the measure killed in committee before it gathers momentum on the floor of a legislative house.
"The states are where the action is," Story said.
While the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance has been monitoring animal rights activists, I have been monitoring the alliance. Week after week I receive the group's messages that serve as both alerts to threats forming in different parts of the country and as reports on just what exactly its foes are up to. The alliance's work is impressive.
When those running the campaign to block Michigan's dove hunt said hunters don't really eat doves they shoot and implied dead birds are just abandoned in the field, the alliance urged hunters to send in their favorite dove recipes.
When a New Jersey anti-hunting protester was arrested, sentenced to 40 days in jail and fined $300, along with three partners fined similarly for harassing hunters in the field, the alliance spread the word.
When animal rights groups called Steve Irwin a "cheap reality TV star" after he was killed by a stingray, the Sportsmen's Alliance dismissed the attack as a cheap shot, noting "to drag a man's name through the mud, as these animal activists are doing, is shameful."
After a federal lawsuit was filed in Florida to ban black-bear hunting, the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance Foundation and its Sportsmen's Legal Defense Fund joined in opposition.
With a membership of 1.5 million, representing individuals and like-minded organizations, the group's budget is $3 million annually. Story said he solicits funding from all sources.
Big issue or small issue, high profile or not, the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance is ready to help with finances or publicity and, at the least, imparting information to its hunter constituency to rally against potential threats.
Story said one tactic of the antis is to divide and attempt to conquer, chipping away at trapping and bow-hunting issues, activities with fewer participants than shotgun deer hunting. The alliance saw identical bills filed in California, Maine, Alabama and other states that would diminish bow-hunter rights. Coincidence?
"It's all part of a campaign mounted by the Humane Society," Story said. "They want to dismantle a sport like bow hunting community by community by community. You have to fight them one at a time."
Story said outdoorsmen must battle misinformation with their own educational campaigns and that includes introducing youngsters to the wilderness. In a more urban environment it is easier for antis to find allies, he said.
"The No. 1 problem is the urbanization of America," Story said. "What chance does your average kid in the United States have to learn about the outdoors? That's what we're up against. Those folks who have been living all these generations on asphalt represent the ignorance that breeds this kind of political activism."
There are an estimated 14.5 million hunters in the United States, which sounds like a lot. But there are 300 million residents and a certain number of those people want to change the status quo.
In a changing society, hunters must work constantly to retain their rights and opportunities. And the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance is their last line of defense.