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RICHMOND — Will Virginia’s Capitol remain a killing field for legislation to allow Sunday hunting in Virginia?
Virginia is one of only 11 states that prohibit or restrict hunting on Sundays. Lawmakers have resisted efforts to roll back a ban that has survived even as other Sunday “blue laws” were swept into the dust bin of history.
But pressure to lift the ban continues to build. Supporters of Sunday hunting are mounting a well-coordinated campaign to break through in this General Assembly session, and a state Senate committee has advanced legislation that would allow Sunday hunting on private property in Virginia.
The Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee voted 11-4 on Jan. 19 to send Senate Bill 464 to the full Senate, where it likely will come up for a vote this week. Four similar bills were folded into SB 464.
“We’ve designated hunting and fishing as a constitutional freedom in Virginia,” said Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), who wrote the “private lands” provision. “How you can restrict hunting one day of the week?”
Existing state law prohibits hunting on Sundays, declaring it a “rest day for all species of wild bird and wild animal life, except raccoons, which may be hunted until 2:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings.”
Similar legislation to lift the ban is pending in the House of Delegates. Four measures have been referred to the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources.
Lawmakers from both parties and most regions of the state have introduced legislation to lift or relax the ban.
The bill sent to the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Ralph Northam (D-Norfolk), would allow landowners to hunt on their own property and allow other hunters to hunt on private property with written permission from the owner.
The committee heard nearly 90 minutes of testimony before voting to advance the bill. Sen. Bill Stanley, who represents parts of the Twin Counties and serves on the committee, voted in favor of lifting the ban.
The Board of Game and Inland Fisheries adopted a resolution in June in support of Sunday hunting.
In addition, a bipartisan group of sportsmen, retailers, environmentalists and former legislators have joined forces to lobby for it. The Virginia Sunday Hunting Coalition argues that lifting the ban would give working families more opportunities to hunt, give private property owners the freedom to use their land, and pump millions into the state’s economy.
“The planets are aligned to do it this year and we want to move forward,” said Del. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William County), who is sponsoring a bill (HB 921) to allow licensed hunters to hunt on Sundays.
The supporters have an ally in the governor’s office. Gov. Bob McDonnell said in a recent interview that he would sign legislation allowing Sunday hunting on private lands.
“I think certainly as a property rights issue we should not be telling property owners what they can and can’t do on private property one day a week,” McDonnell said. “For many, many hunters they can only hunt Saturday and Sunday because that’s when they’re off.
“So we’re basically cutting their time in half.”
Three bills under consideration would lift the ban statewide. Many supporters of the broader bills have said they would be happy with legislation that allows Sunday hunting on private lands.
The Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee’s chairman, Republican Emmett Hanger of Augusta County, has opposed bills to lift the Sunday hunting ban.
He’s heard faith-based objections from constituents in his rural district, clashing views from hunting groups and concerns from hikers, bird-watchers and other outdoors enthusiasts who say they want a day in the woods without having to compete with hunters.
“You have groups that like to get out on their own on Sundays with the security of knowing that hunters won’t also be out there,” Hanger said.
But, Hanger added, “I’m going to listen to the arguments on both sides.”
(Hanger voted against Northam’s Senate Bill 464 when it came before the committee.)
Luring youth to the sport
Among hunters, proponents of Sunday hunting are becoming more common.
In 2007, when the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries surveyed 5,000 licensed hunters about Sunday hunting, 62 percent said they supported it, while 34 percent opposed.
A survey 10 years earlier showed that only 45 percent of hunters in favor, while 48 percent opposed.
Among hunters under 30, the 2007 survey showed that 76 percent favored Sunday hunting.
“During our regulations cycle it’s the number one thing we hear about,” said Jimmy Hazel, a member of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries board of directors and a proponent of Sunday hunting.
John Kemp of Roanoke would like to see the ban go away. He is partners with four others in a 150-acre tract that borders national forestland in Alleghany County. Other partners include his father and two brothers, all of whom live in Northern Virginia — a four- to five-hour drive from the property.
“For them to travel out here is a real commitment,” Kemp said, and one that they are hesitant to undertake for a weekend when they are allowed to hunt just a single day.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that being able to hunt on Sundays could double their hunting seasons.”
Supporters contend that lifting the ban will help slow the decline in hunting license sales, give working families more time to hunt and keep younger hunters engaged in the sport.
“There are lots of folks who work Monday through Saturday,” said Lingamfelter, the chairman of the Virginia Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus. “There are lots of kids who have all kinds of other activities that go on through the week, including Saturdays. So, for that segment of the population, the Sunday hunting opportunities may be very valuable, particularly in reaching that next generation of fishermen and hunters.”
In Ohio, youth participation has shot upward since Sunday hunting was approved in 1999, though the state has also implemented special youth programs and seasons. The state’s Division of Wildlife sold 49,932 youth hunting licenses in 2010, up from 32,000 in 2000.
Virginia Sen. Phillip Puckett (D-Russell County) said support for Sunday hunting has grown in Southwest Virginia, especially as economic pressures and work commitments limit the amount of time available.
Supporters of Sunday hunting say it also can produce an economic boost to the state from greater consumer spending on everything from ammunition to meals and lodging.
“Someone from, say, Richmond or Northern Virginia who’s going to come to the Eastern Shore [to hunt] is going to be a lot more likely to come if they can spend two days instead of one,” said Sen. Northam.
Peace, quiet on Sundays
But Sunday hunting advocates still face long-standing objections from some in the faith community, from farmers and from other outdoors enthusiasts.
“I’m all for hunting, especially deer,” said Nancy Young, a birder who lives in Blue Ridge. “They eat the woods up. And I understand the other side. But they have six days and we have one.”
Bruce Clarke owns 99 acres in Bedford County and allows hunters access to his property. But he prefers peace and quiet on Sundays.
“I’m glad they get the deer,” Clarke said. “It keeps them thinned down. But I like having a quiet day on Sunday. You don’t want guns blasting away. I check my fences on Sunday and I ain’t going back there if people are hunting.”
Mervin and Blanche Brower of Salem are officers in the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club and maintain a section of the trail that runs through national forestland near Catawba.
“We don’t like to go out during hunting season,” Blanche Brower said. “You come across hunters and you don’t know how safe you are.”
But they conceded that they do often go out for trail maintenance on days other than Sundays, and rarely have seen hunters.
Mike Vaughn is the club’s group hike coordinator. “Personally, it doesn’t bother me,” said Vaughn, who said that he wears a blaze orange cap while trail running and hiking during the hunting season.
But he said the club plans most of its group hikes on Sundays, and the club’s members generally prefer that. “It makes them feel more comfortable,” he said.
Joe White, owner of the Roads Rivers and Trails outdoors store in Milford, Ohio, near the Shawnee State Forest, which is popular among hikers and hunters, said his hiking customers don’t complain about hunters.
“To be honest, I don’t hear a thing about it,” said White, who said he encountered 150 hunters over three days while hiking through Pennsylvania on the Appalachian Trail during deer season.
Ken Fitz, the law enforcement program administrator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, said a busy firearms season in that state puts birders and hunters in the woods together.
“We have a two-day firearms deer season that is the same weekend as the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count,” he said. “It’s not had any issues for us whatsoever.”
Hazel, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries board member, said the active approach of groups such as the Virginia Sunday Hunting Coalition has helped clear up some misconceptions.
“The educational process has been extremely helpful,” he said.
Lingamfelter acknowledged that Sunday hunting advocates still have “a lot of work to do.”
“We’ve got to talk to some folks, we’ve got to allay some concerns,” he said. “There are only 11 states in the whole United States that still prohibit Sunday hunting and I think we can do it in a way that will guard the equities of everybody concerned and, at the same time, give Virginia a chance to tap into a huge business opportunity for the state.”
Ten other states outlaw hunting on Sundays — Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and West Virginia.