The 'Last Evil' is No More: Virginia Finally Approves Sunday Hunting on Public Lands
In early March 2022, Virginia’s General Assembly finally closed the book on a contentious, decades-old effort to get legislative approval for Sunday hunting on public lands, allowing public landowners and managers to open lands to people suffering from the last “blue law.”
Senator Chap Peterson’s (D-Fairfax) Senate Bill 8 easily passed a House of Delegates vote by a 69-28 margin. Governor Glenn Youngkin is expected to sign the bill, entering it into law on July 1, 2022. Peterson’s bill breezed through the Senate on a 29-11 vote.
The legislation potentially opens 1.65 million acres of national forest lands in Virginia, 71,000 acres of state forests and several military installations and state parks. Decisions on opening public lands for hunting will now rest on the authority of the landowners and managers of the various tracts. It also opens some 216,000 acres of state-owned wildlife management areas. This relates to that longstanding wrong. These WMA lands were purchased and maintained with revenues derived from hunting license sales. To deny hunters full weekend access during hunting seasons was shameful.
Delegate Todd Gilbert’s bill to allow Sunday hunting on private land was approved in 2014. Gilbert is now Speaker of the House of Delegates.
Archaic blue laws, grounded in religious prohibitions from centuries past, endured for decades. Over time, all steadily fell away – except for hunting. Sunday hunting was the “last evil,” as an old wildlife biologist friend of mine used to say.
Proponents and General Assembly watchers always felt that any Sunday hunting bills would easily pass the full Senate or House of Delegates if they could only escape the committee executioners. Previous Sunday hunting bills never made it out of subcommittee, spiked by a consistent, small handful of opponents. The Virginia Farm Bureau hypocritically expressed opposition at every turn as part of its formal legislative agenda. Thankfully, that opposition vanished in 2022 and the Farm Bureau didn’t rise in opposition against Sunday hunting on public land, which was appropriate because, after all, it had no “dog in this hunt.”
The organization claiming to represent Virginia’s hunting dog owners, the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance, also used to voice, on the legislative record, strong opposition to Sunday hunting. Now, some hunting dog owners sitting home on Sundays can thank this persistent opposition. Peterson’s bill continues the prohibition on Sunday hunting of deer or bear with dogs and hunting within 200 yards of a place of worship.
Passage of a public lands bill in 2022 was looking doubtful. Del. James Edmunds, R-Halifax, House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Subcommittee chair, saw his bill, which allowed Sunday hunting just on WMAs, fail on a 3-3 vote – in his own subcommittee! Peterson’s bill was the fourth public lands bill introduced in the last three years. His broader legislation advanced on a 4-2 vote from the same subcommittee. It was then narrowly approved by an 11-9 vote in the full Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee.
The majority of the 28 “Nay” votes in the House of Delegates were clustered among mostly Democrat party legislators in heavily urbanized areas, especially northern Virginia and the Tidewater area near Virginia Beach.
Freshman legislator Tara Durant (R-Fredericksburg) voted against the bill, saying she “wrestled” with how to vote. “I heard from a number of constituents on both sides of this legislation,” Durant said. Those who support the measure often expressed that they work Monday-Friday and want to be able to enjoy hunting on Saturday and Sunday. Those who opposed the expansion – including hikers, walkers, birdwatchers, equestrians, bikers and others who enjoy the outdoors - want one day of their week to be free of bullets, arrows, and hunting noise.”
Those public safety and noise arguments have been well-documented as smokescreens over the years, especially the purported concerns about noise. People can target practice all day long on Sunday and Durant is in a district with one of the noisiest military installations (Marine Corps Base Quantico) in the state. Durant called her vote a “suitable compromise to best serve the common good.”
Two delegates represent areas that abound with hunting clubs dominated by deer-hunting hound enthusiasts. Margaret Ransone (R-Kinsale) in the Northern Neck and M. Keith Hodges (R-Urbanna) in the Middle Peninsula, were among the Nay voters. Ransone, regularly touts herself as a supporter of hunters but she also presented a bill this year that would’ve banned snare traps statewide. That bill failed.
Nay votes among urbanite delegates were not wholly unexpected, but they do a disservice to constituents who are hunters. Precious little public land, if any, exists in their districts and their constituents often travel considerable distances to public lands to hunt. Nay votes by delegates who have many hunters, largely rural constituencies, and almost no public lands seem suspect. One could surmise they reflect support for just certain groups of hunters versus all hunters or maybe a general lack of caring about hunters who don’t own or lease land.
Religion – specifically the “day of rest” argument - have also been convenient “outs” over the years. Ransone used that for her Nay vote last year. Really, that’s selective religious discrimination. Where are the bills banning golf, shopping, fishing, dancing or any other Sunday evils? One speaker representing a Facebook public lands group, called out the religious argument at this year’s subcommittee hearing, noting that banning hunting on Sunday for religious reasons is discriminatory against those who follow religions other than Christianity.
A coalition of national and in-state sportsmen’s groups, led by the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF), Delta Waterfowl, Safari Club International, the Virginia Bowhunter’s Association (VBA) and others expressed strong support for the legislation. Their letter to Virginia General Assembly members outlined economic, conservation funding and hunter recruitment benefits, stating, “…many hunters in Virginia would not have a place to hunt but for the public lands system. Allowing Sunday hunting would double the number of hunting days for youth during the school year and provide additional flexibility for hardworking adults with limited opportunities to hunt during the work week.”
Last fall, the Virginia DWR Board unanimously passed a resolution endorsing Sunday hunting on public land, noting that nearly 40% of hunters pursue game species on public lands.
Ryan Brown, Virginia DWR director, said, “The repeal of the Sunday hunting prohibition places our public and private land hunters on equal footing. Since the passage of Sunday hunting on private lands eight years ago, we have seen increased opportunity for our hunting community without detrimental impacts to our wildlife populations or user conflicts. We expect that the availability of public lands will likewise be a success on all counts.
Larry Readal, VBA’s publicity director, said he was proud of his organization’s team and offered specific praise for the CSF’s John Culclasure for his leadership in pulling hunting and conservation organizations together. “What an outstanding victory for all the hunters in Virginia!” said Readal.
Cyrus Baird, senior director of government affairs for Delta Waterfowl, calls the vote “huge” and “historic,” adding, “I’m glad to see that all lands will now be available for hunting on Sunday, especially for those who only get weekends to go.”