DENVER – Bob Elderkin's vote would appear to be a sure bet for President Bush (search) on Nov. 2. He is a hunter, part of a conservative-leaning group of outdoorsmen that is 38 million strong and avidly supports gun rights.
But after backing Bush in 2000, Elderkin and some like-minded outdoorsmen say the Republican won't get their vote again because of his environmental policies.
"I can't vote for Bush knowing what it's going to be like the next four years," said Elderkin, a retired Bureau of Land Management (search) employee in western Colorado where natural-gas drilling is booming. "With John Kerry (search), it's an unknown. As far as Bush goes, it's going to be `Katie, bar the door."'
Sid Evans, editor of Field & Stream magazine, said American sportsmen are divided on the president's environmental policies, finding themselves torn in some cases between the GOP's Second Amendment backing and a push to make more public land available for energy development.
"I think that more will vote for Bush. I think they feel more comfortable with him in general," said Evans, who estimated there are at least 38 million hunters and fishermen nationwide with an annual economic impact of $70 billion.
Kerry has made a strong effort to be seen as a supporter of the Second Amendment despite failing grades from the National Rifle Association for Senate votes on gun legislation. He has gone on public hunts, taken time out for target practice during the campaign and declared flatly that he wouldn't take away the firearms of sportsmen.
"Kerry is paying attention to this group in a way they have not been paid attention to by a Democratic candidate for a while," Evans said.
Campaigning in Ohio on Saturday, Kerry picked up a hunting license in a pitch to socially conservative Democrats motivated by values and gun rights.
Still, some hunters equate Democratic politics with gun control.
"It's kind of hard to hunt without having access to firearms," said Mike Freeze, vice chairman of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and co-chairman of the state's Sportsmen for Bush group.
Sportsmen like Elderkin worry that proliferating gas wells dotting private and public land will affect some of the nation's largest deer, elk and pronghorn antelope herds. "If there's nothing to hunt out there," he asks, "what use is a gun?"
Last spring, Bush invited hunters and others to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and he also revamped rules on wetlands after meetings with hunters and anglers. He told Field & Stream the nation can protect the environment while producing fuel "that will enable people to be able to live the lives they want to live."
"Sportsmen represent a very important constituency to this campaign," Bush spokesman Danny Diaz said. "They reflect, in many cases, the interests and views of a majority of Americans and rural America."
Alan Lackey of Raton, N.M, and Stan Rauch of Victor, Mont., both Bush voters in 2000, said they are angry about the administration's proposal to allow logging and new roads on up to 58 million acres of national forest that were declared off-limits by a Clinton-era rule.
"Kerry, I believe, would be better on environmental policies, which to me equates to taking care of habitat and wildlife," said Rauch, a retired Air Force pilot.
A recent National Wildlife Federation poll said many sportsmen disagree with the administration's environmental policies, federation spokesman Vinay Jain said. The poll, conducted in July, found that 75 percent believe carbon dioxide emissions should be reduced and 49 percent think the oil and gas industry have the most input into Bush's conservation and hunting and fishing policies.
"The poll affirmed what we'd been hearing for years anecdotally about increasing hunter and angler backlash," Jain said.
The backlash is as strong in other parts of the country as in the West, said Christopher Camuto, an outdoors writer in Lewisburg, Pa.
"Everybody is looking at how little is left in the East. Most sportsmen would want to hold the line at the roadless backcountry we have left," Camuto said.
A Bush proposal would require governors to petition the government to keep roadless areas undeveloped. Kerry supports the Clinton administration's protection for roadless areas in national forests.
Lackey, a car dealer in northern New Mexico and a former hunting and fishing guide, has helped organize opposition to a proposal by Houston-based El Paso Corp. to explore for oil and gas in half the 100,000-acre Valle Vidal. It is home to the state's largest elk herd and some of the few remaining populations of native wild trout.
"Sportsmen are predominantly Republican and very patriotic," Lackey said. "But the federal government has become an instrument to convey the public wealth into private hands at our expense."