Pennsylvania's Sunday hunting debate rages on

(Hazleton) Standard-Speaker (TNS)

The first day of buck season is an unofficial holiday in Pennsylvania, a rite observed on the Monday following Thanksgiving.

But what if hunting began Sunday instead?

Pennsylvania hunters are now safer than ever according to a report by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Campaigns to permit hunting on Sundays have misfired in years past, but they persist.

“Providing an additional day for hunting would provide a means to recruit new hunters, and most importantly today’s youths, while retaining existing hunters who are unable to hunt during current game seasons due to lack of time,” two lawmakers said in a memo that they wrote in April before introducing a bill to OK Sunday hunting.

State Reps. Frank Farina, D-112, and Robert Godshall, R-53, also said they think Sunday hunting will pep up the state’s economy.

Their bill, however, hasn’t budged from the House Game and Fisheries Committee.

The idea of Sunday hunting bucks a tradition of keeping the Sabbath holy; but despite the repeal of other Sunday bans — the so-called blue laws that once prohibited stores from opening or Pennsylvanians from fishing — hunters who want to pursue wild game on Sundays encounter push-back for other reasons.

“I would argue it’s the one day out of the week that people who don’t hunt can enjoy the woods, enjoy nature, without being afraid of being shot or hearing gunfire,” Bob Wasilewski, the president of the Greater Wyoming Valley Audubon Society, said.

A birder and nature photographer, Wasilewski prefers to stay out of the woods during deer season, except on Sundays, an option for hikers, bicyclists, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, skiers, horseback riders and others who enjoy nature.

Farmers commonly permit hunting on their land, but six days a week is enough, Mark O’Neill of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau said.

“They want one day of peace and quiet on the farm,” O’Neill said.

Like the Farm Bureau, he thinks a majority of Pennsylvanians prefer the status quo.

If the Pennsylvania Game Commission wants to give hunters more chances, O’Neill suggests allowing deer hunting on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving instead of Sundays.

The current deer seasons: This year, archery deer season started on Oct. 1, ran for six weeks and will resume for two weeks after Christmas. Muzzleloader hunters had the week of Oct. 15 to 22 to try their luck.

The rifle season that begins Monday continues for two weeks, and hunters with flintlocks can harvest deer from Dec. 26 to Jan. 14, 2017.

“That’s a long stretch for the animals,” said Joe Gans, coach of the national champion shooting sports team at Hazleton Area High School, who favors giving deer a respite on Sundays.

He understands why some hunters favor Sunday hunting, especially if they have long drives to their hunting camps.

The Game Commission wants to Legislature to allow Sunday hunting.

If hunting was legal on Sundays, the commission believes more hunters would buy licenses in Pennsylvania, including residents of borders states and Pennsylvanians who cross into Ohio or New York to hunt on Sundays.

Most states allow Sunday hunts. Delaware, one of the four states with more restrictive laws than Pennsylvania at the start of the year, recently approved hunting on five Sundays a year.

Pennsylvania does allow hunting of crows, coyotes, foxes and feral swine on Sundays.

Letting hunters pursue deer or other popular game would raise interest, the commission believes.

Economic impact: Extra money that hunters would spend on Sundays would increase the economy by $803 million, a report said six years ago.

Bryan Burhans, deputy executive director of the Game Commission, told the Senate Game and Fisheries Commission on May 18 that lack of time is the main reason why people stop hunting. In a survey of lapsed hunters, 49 percent of them said Sunday hunting would encourage them to buy a license again, Burhans said.

Addressing worries that some owners would close their land to hunting altogether if Sunday hunting became legal, Burhans said the commission would work with landowners, provide signs saying “No Sunday hunting” and enforce a Sunday ban where owners preferred it.

How about permitting Sunday hunting just on the 1.5 million acres of state game land? The commission purchased that land with proceeds from hunting licenses and a federal tax on guns and ammunition, not state tax dollars.

O’Neill said the Farm Bureau would oppose that idea, which he said could lead to allowing Sunday hunting everywhere. Concentrating hunters on game land, he pointed out, might decimate herds there.

Wasilewski said he is receptive to allowing Sunday hunting on some lands and reserving other land such as state parks for non-hunters. Also, he suggested a federal tax on binoculars and outdoor equipment that non-hunters use to help purchase and manage public lands.

Outdoors lovers co-exist: Hikers, bicyclists, horseback riders and other outdoor enthusiasts don’t take Sundays off, the Game Commission points out. Regulations prohibit bicyclists and horseback riders from using state game lands between late September and early January and again from mid-April through May, except on Sundays.

“The truth of the matter is that these groups recreate 365 days per year, including Saturdays and Sundays during hunting seasons,” Burhans said. “They recreate on state game lands, state forests, at state parks, and in the Allegheny National Forest; all lands where hunting is permitted.”

They have coexisted with hunters, he said, because hunting is inherently safe. Hunting-related shootings have dropped by 50 percent in the past decade. The 23 incidents last year involved less that 1 one-thousandth of 1 percent of the 935,000 hunters, Burhans said.