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Perrotte: Sunday hunting remains a loaded state issue

Perrotte: Sunday hunting remains a loaded state issue

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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.

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 land that were bought with and are maintained by hunter-derived revenues.

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 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.

Flip-flop

Some delegates flip-flopped on their vote. Del. 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 during the pre-2014 vote. Now, after seven years of experience, it seems obvious that allowing landowners to decide what happens on their own property presented no true hazard.

In contrast, proponents catalogued facts, grounded in statistical reason.

Several opponents wrote of worry about safely riding horses or walking in parks. 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?

The old objection about places of worship being disturbed by Sunday gunshots raised its smokescreen head. Del. Joshua Cole, D-28, whose district includes much of Stafford and Fredericksburg, 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 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.

It is a travesty that only people who own or lease land or pay hunt club dues get to hunt every day.

The last blue law

Eric Sundberg, Cole’s chief of staff, told me, “Del. 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 Del. 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, Del. 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.

The committee defeat has a “fix was in” aroma to it. The bill was fast-tracked to a hearing, having all of four 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.

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