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A bill to legalize Sunday hunting in Pennsylvania is pitting farmers who want to enjoy their land and preserve religious traditions against hunters who say lifting the blue law could be an economic boon for the state.

Legislation in the state Senate, sponsored by Erie Republican Daniel Laughlin, has cleared the Game and Fisheries Committee and is awaiting action in the Appropriations Committee. A House version has yet to clear the first committee.

As lawmakers look for revenue before the June 30 budget deadline and the Senate committee analyzes the bill's fiscal benefits, hunters are touting hundreds of millions that could benefit the state in hopes of getting a full floor vote.

Thomas Redfern, vice chairman of the Bowhunters of Pennsylvania's Legislative Committee, recently cited two studies analyzing the economic impact if Sunday hunting were legalized.

One 2011 study, conducted by Southwick Associates, a Florida-based fish and wildlife economics firm, predicted hunters would spend $460 million more annually if the ban were lifted, contributing to a total $803.6 million boost to the state economy.

The study, which was commissioned by the General Assembly, also reports Sunday hunting would bring in $56.8 million in state and local tax revenue annually.

The consultant has "no skin in the game," Redfern said. "How can politicians not act on this kind of legislation when we're talking about these kind of numbers?"

Another study that was published last year by the National Shooting Sports Foundation cites even larger numbers, estimating the economic bump would be as much as $972.6 million.

However, a Pennsylvania Farm Bureau representative said he doubts the studies' findings and is sticking with the bureau's long-held opposition to Sunday hunting.

"Our farmers believe they should have one day a week to have the ability to go out and enjoy the land themselves and not worry about getting in the way of hunters or having hunters come to their doors asking for permission to hunt," said Joel Rotz, who handles the bureau's government affairs and communications.

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Pennsylvania is one of just 11 states that restrict or ban hunting on Sundays. Under the law, the state forbids hunting on that one day, excluding:

  • The hunting of foxes or coyotes and any hunting that occurs on noncommercial, regulated hunting grounds holding a valid permit.
  • The removal of lawfully taken game or wildlife from traps or the resetting of the traps.

If the legislation passes, the state Game Commission would have the authority to remove those limitations and fully legalize hunting on Sundays.

Yet for decades, the Farm Bureau has opposed making hunting a seven-day activity, citing trespassing issues and the desire for farmers to roam their own land.

Rotz also pointed out that "many of our farm families have a strong religious background" and would like a day of rest.

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Besides, he said, hunters who can't go out on Sundays already have an economic impact, such as by going to sporting events or eating and drinking at bars and restaurants in their communities.

The two groups have made some progress in negotiations with the most recent legislation. To address the trespassing concerns, Laughlin's bill would make trespassing a primary offense and increase the penalties. 

But that isn't enough for the bureau, as it has plenty more demands, Rotz said. Those include:

  • Trespass laws must be amended to address Farm Bureau policy.
  • Hunting must be allowed by written permission from landowners.
  • Hunting must be allowed on state game lands and forests, with “No Sunday Hunting” signage provided at no charge for adjacent private lands at the owners' request.
  • Sunday hunting would only include antlerless deer and woodchuck.
  • Sunday hunting for antlerless deer would be limited to three Sundays, including the first Sunday of archery, first Sunday of flintlock and the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Even with the pushback from the Farm Bureau, by clearing the Senate Game and Fisheries Committee in February the bill has already made it further than previous attempts.

Sen. Patrick Browne, R-Lehigh, is chairing the Appropriations Committee that will determine whether the bill goes further. He did not respond to inquiries for comment by deadline.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.

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