Virginia's Hunters Restricted from Millions of Acres of Public Land -- Even Their Own!
Updated: Feb 24, 2020
Note: This is a slightly expanded version of a column that ran Oct. 25 in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.
Another autumn is upon us and once again deer hunters anticipate taking to the Virginia woods. A few years ago, Virginia hunters were finally granted relief from the archaic blue law prohibiting hunting on Sunday -- at least when it came to hunting private lands with landowner permission. Accessing Virginia’s vast public lands on Sundays is another story. Hunters are still persona non grata. Prohibido. Verboten. Haramu. You know: Keep Out!
Let’s tally up what this means in terms of diminished access.
First, the Virginia Department of Forestry manages 24 state forests covering 68,626 acres. Second, are the Washington and Jefferson National Forests, totaling over 1.65 million acres in Virginia.
Next, we have Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries owned and maintained 42 wildlife management areas totaling more than 203,000 acres.
The DGIF web site notes many of these management areas are open for some type of hunting, while also stating they are managed “for the benefit of all citizens for a variety of outdoor recreational opportunities.” That’s fine, with one big exception: these lands were purchased and are now maintained with hunting, fishing and trapping license fees, and with Wildlife Restoration funds derived from the sale of hunting-related equipment.
Hunters should not be excluded from these WMAs on any day during hunting seasons, period – Sundays included.
Then, we have the special cases. For example, Virginia’s 37 State Parks have 72,973 acres. Park managers seem to be making a good effort to allow hunters limited, reasonable access and support hunting as a key means of managing wildlife.
In stark contrast are the national parks in Virginia, which include hundreds of thousands of acres of forests, largely wooded battlefields and more. Efforts to create some form of managed hunting has been as futile as Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. Instead, park service leaders seem to prefer costly sharpshooter solutions when dealing with out-of-control wildlife populations. Hunters would likely pay for the opportunity.
Virginia’s military installations, including nearby Fort A.P. Hill and Marine Corps Base Quantico, are also unique situations. These federal entities tend to cooperate with the state when it comes to some hunting regulations. They still prohibit Sunday hunting, but my belief is local commanders could opt to ignore that prohibition and allow access seven days a week. A significant justifying factor there is that game management responsibilities can be challenging on military bases, especially when areas are tied up with military training or other activities Monday through Friday and many weekends.
Taken in total, the amount of off-limits public land on Sundays is staggering.
An R3 Failure
We’re all hearing about “R3,” the buzziest buzz term in the conservation world. It stands for Recruit, Retain and Reactivate. Why is it critical? Hunter numbers are slipping or barely holding their own in many places, yet license revenues and purchases from these very people are what sustains fish and wildlife agencies and conservation programs. States, including Virginia, have hired R3 coordinators. National conferences are held to address the issue. The situation is often termed as “dire.”
Yet, one of the chief, documented problems with this effort, especially in Virginia, is – I’m going to shout here – MANY DON’T HAVE ANYPLACE TO HUNT. Or, if they do, it’s often some piece of marginal public land two hours or more from where they live. They pay good money for all of their licenses, stamps, permits, etc., and the only day they get to hunt is Saturday; at least that’s the case for a huge slice of the workaday world. If Saturday’s weather sucks, or any of myriad reasons why they can’t get out, they’re out of luck until next Saturday. Youth sporting events often dominate Saturday mornings and afternoons in the fall or spring. Many families must choose between hunting or soccer. Adding full Sunday hunting would double the days many families are able to get afield.
I’m not even going to attempt to address religion, which is the smokescreen case some organizations use to voice opposition. That is an individual choice, a family choice and politicians have no business – at least not in this nation - crafting laws that restrict people from the outdoors in order to fill church pews.
State legislators are content to sit on their hands. Agencies such as farm bureaus, which constantly clamor for more wildlife control, mysteriously back Sunday bans, specifically stating in policy books they oppose it on public land. Incredible! Even the organized dog hunting world has, crazily, gone on record opposing Sunday hunting. State agency managers who may want to open access can’t publicly stick their necks out and get ahead of their appointed boards or the General Assembly.
This ridiculous prohibition needs to be solved in the General Assembly. And, politicians rarely act unless pushed. If you want success in R3, in saving hunting, then it’s time to start pushing - hard. This is one baby that can’t deliver itself.
North Carolina Sunday Snag
In 2000, Virginians passed a state constitutional amendment stating, "The people have a right to hunt, fish, and harvest game, subject to such regulations and restrictions as the General Assembly may prescribe by general law." It passed with 60 percent of the vote. Some 21 states already have such provisions in their state constitutions.
North Carolina voters have an opportunity Nov. 6 to adopt a similar constitutional measure, this one also establishing public hunting and fishing as a preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife.
The slow rollers also have the ball in North Carolina. Only this time it’s not the politicians but instead the very people appointed to look out for hunters and wildlife resources. That state passed a Sunday hunting reprieve early last year, one that left the state Wildlife Resources Commission an option to reset rules allowing Sunday hunting on state game lands.
Since passage of the bill, though, nothing has transpired to enable Sunday hunting on North Carolina’s approximately 2 million acres of Game Lands.
According to John Culclasure with Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, a coalition of sportsmen’s conservation organizations submitted a letter Oct. 12 to the Wildlife Resources Commission encouraging the agency to move forward with rulemaking to open Sunday hunting on Game Lands.
A CSF release reported that the letter included several important notes: the longstanding commitment of the WRC to increase access for hunters as well as the successful track record of Sunday hunting in North Carolina; the WRC’s past expressed support for expanding Sunday hunting opportunities; the importance of increasing hunting opportunities for sportsmen and women with limited access to private lands; the fact that Game Lands are purchased and managed in large part with hunter-generated conservation dollars through the American System of Conservation Funding; the importance of reducing barriers to participation in hunting to support hunter recruitment, retention, and reactivation; and the economic and conservation funding benefits provided by removing Sunday hunting restrictions.
Additionally, sportsmen’s groups offered to help educate non-consumptive user groups about the benefits of Sunday hunting and to work with them to ease perceived fears about Sunday hunting on Game Lands. Sunday hunting on public lands is legal in some capacity in 46 states, including adjacent states Georgia and Tennessee, which have no restrictions against Sunday hunting on public lands.
The letter also points out the connection between access and R3. To quote: “Access is critical to recruiting, retaining, and reactivating hunters (R3), but not all North Carolina hunters have access to private property. Like other user-groups that depend on access to public lands to engage in their recreational pursuits, many hunters in North Carolina would not have a place to hunt but for the Game Lands system.
“We agree with the WRC’s statement in its 2013 resolution that ‘Sunday hunting is an effective means of recruiting new hunters and retaining current hunters by effectively doubling the number of hunting days for youths during the school year while providing additional options for hardworking adults with limited weekend hunting opportunities.’ We further believe that providing Sunday hunting opportunities for public lands hunters is important for supporting efforts to recruit the next generation of hunters and therefore support access parity between private land and public land hunters on Sundays.”