Sunday Hunting on Public Land Again Defeated; Flip-Flop Politicians & Archaic Virginia Blue Law
Updated: Jan 22, 2021
Hunting on Sunday remains curiously contentious in Virginia. After nearly a decade of acrimonious debate, it was finally allowed on private lands in 2014. Virginia legislators, though, never granted public land hunters the same courtesy.
A proposal to allow Sunday hunting on public lands, if not conducted closer than 200 yards from a place of worship, failed last year in the House of Delegates’ Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee on a 13-9 vote. The same proposal this year, offered again by Delegate James Edmunds, R-60, flamed out fast last week on a 16-6 vote. Remember, hunters on private land may hunt and shoot within those same distance constraints seven days a week. It would be illustrative to find out precisely how many houses of worship are concerned about hearing an occasional shot in the distance.
Hunters remain unwelcome on Sundays across 1.66 million acres of Virginia national forests and 69,000 acres of state forests. Amazingly, Sunday hunters are still banned on more than 200,000 acres of wildlife management areas, lands that were bought with and are maintained by Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources using hunter-derived revenues – money that came from license and registration fees, conservation stamps and federal excise tax apportionment.
Even military installations are part of the ban, although I bet local commanders could permit Sunday hunting if it was determined that it helped meet required wildlife management plans. Virginia military installations have about 100,000 acres or more of accessible hunting land, as I calculate it. These installations, such as Forts A.P. Hill and Pickett and Marine Corps Base Quantico, and even Fort Belvoir, are often the only substantial, quality hunting venues for countless hunters, especially people living and working on those bases or in proximity along the densely packed I-95 corridor. After all, public land remains sparse in the eastern part of Virginia.
Some delegates flip-flopped on their vote. Delegate Kenneth Plum, D-36, who chairs the committee, voted for the bill last year. So did Margaret Ransone, R-99, who represents much of the Northern Neck.
Perusing hundreds of written public comments on this year’s bill, one sees common themes. Opponent arguments were often grounded in emotion, bringing up public safety bogeyman issues. Fear mongering was legendary, the main opposition tactic, during the pre-2014 vote. Farmers were going to be shot off their tractors! Of course, that wasn’t occurring anywhere else in the United States that allowed Sunday hunting, but you can bet it was going to happen in Virginia, opponents warned. Now, after seven years of experience and the steady clearing of thick smokescreen blown over the issue, it seems obvious that allowing landowners to decide what happens on their own property presented no true hazard.
Some opponents pointed out, using seemingly prepared/canned statements, their affection for hiking and bicycling in state parks and other state or local natural and recreation areas. The same for horse enthusiasts, many of whom already own substantial tracts of land. It is almost an elitist stance for them to prohibit from public lands people who cannot afford to buy or lease private, or own expensive horses for that matter. Where is the justice there, especially when it comes to vast national forests and hunter-purchased WMAs?
I think some in the opposition miss the point. Just because Sunday hunting is allowed by law, it doesn’t mean that it would be uniformly wide-open access everywhere every Sunday. Any park of sufficient size that has limited hunting programs to help control wildlife populations already sets parameters. Why would that change if a Sunday hunting option became available?
Show Me the Money!
One opponent of the bill stated he or she “enjoys using the State Forests and WMA for recreation other than hunting, Sundays are our only time from Sept-May that we are assured that there is no one hunting in those places. As a taxpayer I have a right to enjoy those places as well as any hunter.” To that, especially regarding access to WMAs, I would state, “Hogwash.” Your tax dollars had nothing to do with those WMAs, neither their purchase nor their upkeep. You have no right to claim them. In 2020, Virginia hunting license sales totaled $8.6 million. Daily access permits for WMAs by non-license holders totaled $10,770 ($3 fee times 3,590 permits). Annual permits for non-license holders totaled $35,530 ($22 fee times 1,615 permits). The non-license user fees don't even represent 1/2 of 1 percent of the revenues derived by hunters. So, give it a rest with the claim to who has rights on WMAs which, again, were bought with hunter money.
Also, according to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, the agency sold 11,242 Virginia State Forest Use Permits and 96,105 National Forest Permits. The State Forest Use Permit is required to hunt, trap, fish, mountain bike or ride horses on state forests.
In contrast, proponents who offered written comments catalogued facts, grounded in statistical reason. One proponent called it, “tantamount to a tax on the poor and the working man who cannot hunt during the week. Why can we fish on Sunday, but we can’t hunt? The Department of wildlife resources supports Sunday hunting. There is no biological or safety reason to not allow it. There are plenty of states that have hunting on Sunday on public land, yet Virginia is caught in the dark ages.”
You can read all written comments here.
The old objection about places of worship being disturbed by Sunday gunshots raised its smokescreen head. Delegate Joshua Cole, D-28, whose district includes Fredericksburg and much of Stafford County, surfaced it in the committee hearing, pointing to unspecified concerns about noise. This, given the fact that anyone can go out and hunt on private lands or target practice anytime, not to mention the Marine Corps Base Quantico range complex can be booming any day of the week. So, we’re worried about noise from a deer or squirrel hunter firing a couple shots over the course of a season? Really?
No Time for Testimony
Cyrus Baird of Safari Club International and a lifelong Virginia hunter, was one of more than 40 people he estimates who formally signed up and were approved to testify about the bill’s merits. Other supporters represented various conservation groups as well as, simply, themselves. They were denied the opportunity to participate and received the figurative “bum’s rush.” Plum simply declared the committee didn’t have the time to hear the people who were prepared and waiting to speak. The entire meeting barely lasted 90 minutes.
If there truly was no time, with an upcoming event likely to preempt thorough debate and public testimony, then Plum should have pulled the bill from that particular committee meeting and scheduled it for a day when it could get a fair shake. It is supposed to be a public process, but that often, disturbingly falls short at the state legislature level.
One representative from the Virginia Horse Council was allowed to speak in opposition, offering a vague statement that Sunday hunting on public land would "disrupt agricultural activities in rural communities." How? And why is it not an issue in the more than 40 states that permit Sunday hunting?
John Culclasure of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation was the only person allowed to testify for the bill, offering facts and history concerning its merits.
Virginia is not a one-size-fits-all situation when it comes to hunting. Seasons vary widely based on geography. Seasons in the western part of the commonwealth are much shorter than those east of the Blue Ridge. Those western portions, incidentally, contain about 2 million acres of public land.
This continued denial to public lands on Sundays represents a huge failure in the “R3” effort, a nationwide movement to recruit, retain or reactivate hunters – the people who pay for conservation in this country.
No one has more skin in the game than hunters when it comes to investing resources. This includes hikers and horse riders who, now thankfully, pay a minimal access fee to enjoy wildlife management areas. Their $22 a year, though, pales in comparison to the millions of dollars of hunter money that went into acquiring these tracts. And, many WMAs already ration hunting days, due to the area’s size and concerns about pressure on game populations. Managers could be counted on to do the same, even if Sunday hunting were allowed.
It is a travesty that only people who own or lease land or pay hunt club dues get to hunt every day. When one thinks of all the military personnel, first responders, families with kids immersed in sports and other activities and others who may find it tough to get away for a few hours of hunting public land, taking away half the weekend from them is not right, in my opinion.
The last ‘Blue Law”
Eric Sundberg, Cole’s chief of staff, told me, “Delegate Cole is not opposed to Sunday hunting explicitly. Our office did extensive research on the topic and received hundreds of requests from those both opposed and supportive of Delegate Edmunds bill, HB1799. We listened to the concerns of both sides of the debate and concluded the bill still needed work. Principally, the bill did not address concerns raised by many of those who contacted our office; most of those individuals were farmers and locals to rural Virginia.”
Prior to the committee meeting, Ransone’s aide Timothy Minor said, “Historically, Delegate Ransone has opposed legislation that allows Sunday hunting based off her Christian morals and values.” She voted for it last year, though. A query about the flip-flop received no response.
At least Ransone is being somewhat forthright about one thing: namely, Sunday hunting is related to archaic “blue laws,” written hundreds of years ago to ensure people are in church. Sunday hunting on public land, it appears, is the last evil covered by Virginia’s blue laws. I wonder if Virginia will return prohibitions against retail shopping, alcohol sales, organized sports and dancing on Sunday.
The committee defeat has a “fix was in” aroma to it. The bill was fast-tracked to a hearing, having all of 4 hours from the time the General Assembly convened until the first committee hearing. It is hard for a bill’s patron, in this case Edmunds, to do much coordination. The bill completely bypassed the usual subcommittee route where concerns may have been addressed and the bill tweaked as needed.
Here's a thought. How about passing the enabling law and then letting managers of the various categories of public land best figure out their own ways of optimizing access? Easy-peasy. Some people have begun discussing a legal challenge. It just might have merit.