Sunday hunting bill shot down

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                 Another Sunday hunting bill was shot down yesterday at a public hearing by the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee. LD 424, sponsored by Representative Jeff Pierce of Dresden, would have allowed hunting on five Sundays for bear, moose, deer and wild turkey in coastal wildlife management areas on public land and private land of 5 acres of more with the landowner’s permission.

                I was surprised when Deputy Commissioner Tim Peabody of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife testified “neither-for-nor-against” the bill. He noted that “Sunday hunting could provide potential economic growth and additional opportunity for hunters,” but warned that the agency would have to reduce the season length and worried that this “would cause a significantly higher amount of hunting pressure.”

                The only proponent of the bill was the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. SAM’s executive director, David Trahan, testified, “Our organization has consistently supported Sunday hunting as a way to expand hunting opportunities and aid economically depressed areas in rural Maine.” Recognizing that landowners want one day a week without hunting, Dave said, “We would gladly give them Wednesday in exchange for Sunday.” That drew some laughs from committee members and the audience.         

                Dave also argued that concern this would increase hunting pressure “makes the case to support this new opportunity... this legislation supports Maine’s working men and women and brings equality to hunting opportunity.”

                I joked with Dave after he spoke that he and I have swapped position. As a State Senator, Dave was a very vocal and effective opponent of Sunday hunting, while I tried for 18 years as SAM’s executive director to win some Sunday hunting opportunities.

                For the first time, I testified against Sunday hunting, giving the committee some history of the proposals I’d offered over the years, including Sunday hunting on your own land, without success. I recognized that we hunters are a minority, and we must get along with landowners and the public, and as long as they don’t want us hunting on Sunday, we must respect that. I also noted that sportsmen and women are divided on this issue. In general, on my SAM membership surveys, 60% supported Sunday hunting and 40% opposed it.

                While I’ve always felt that the lack of Sunday hunting hurts our economy – because hunters have that opportunity in most states including New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York – the truth is that except for SAM, all other outdoor organizations have opposed Sunday hunting including guides and sporting camp owners.

                And sure enough, Don Kleiner of the Maine Professional Guides Association testified against this bill, noting that “We all own the wildlife, but the problem is the wildlife lives on someone’s land.” He emphasized, as did I, the need to respect and get along with private landowners.

                Two major organizations representing those landowners also testified against the bill. Alicyn Smart, Executive Director of the Maine Farm Bureau, said that while farmers have lengthy debates about some issues, “when the policy of Sunday hunting comes up, no matter where in the state the farmers live, there is little debate on Sunday hunting. Farmers are in agreement. They are opposed to Sunday hunting.”

                Alicyn noted that her predecessor, Jon Olson, “had been lobbying for the Maine Farm Bureau since the 110th Legislature back in 1981. Since then, 34 Sunday hunting bills were introduced and defeated.” And she listed them all. Ironically, I started working for SAM in 1981, so a lot of those bills were ours. But I am happy to report that Jon Olson remains one of my good friends. Yes, you can disagree and still be friends.

                Tom Doak, Executive Director of the Maine Woodland Owners, testified, “There is no single issue that would change the relationship more dramatically between Maine landowners and hunters; between hunters and the general public; and between hunters themselves, than Sunday hunting. There is no single issue that would result in more loss of access to private land, for all purposes, than Sunday hunting.”

                I’m including all of Tom’s testimony here and encourage you to read it. If you do, you will understand why we are not going to be hunting on Sundays in Maine.

Tom Doak’s Testimony

The issue of Sunday hunting is not new.  In fact, I believe this is the 33rd time in the last 41 years that the Legislature has considered the issue.  Each time, the Legislature has rejected Sunday hunting.

There is no single issue that would change the relationship more dramatically between Maine landowners and hunters; between hunters and the general public; and between hunters themselves, than Sunday hunting.  There is no single issue that would result in more loss of access to private land, for all purposes, than Sunday hunting. 

The issue of hunting on Sunday may have started as a “blue law,” but it has evolved over the last 130 years (that is how long hunting on Sunday has been prohibited) into an important landowner/hunter/general public accommodation. 

In most other states, you do not go on someone’s land to hunt without their permission.  In most other states, a hunter pays a fee to the landowner.  And in many other states, land is leased to individuals or hunting clubs.  Not in Maine.  Essentially here, unless told otherwise, it is assumed you can hunt on a person’s property - for free.  That is an incredible benefit afforded a hunter in Maine, which is too often not fully appreciated and is commonly taken for granted.

The primary reason there is not a law in Maine requiring landowner permission for all access to private land, including hunting, (so called reverse posting) is because landowners know they will have one day in seven to fully enjoy their property. Even active supporters of Sunday hunting have opposed bills requiring landowner permission, knowing that once permission is required for hunting in Maine, there would be a substantial loss of access.  They understand that any statute that requires permission for only Sunday will quickly transition into requiring permission for any day.

The importance of Sunday to landowners should not be underestimated.  I do not think hunters fully understand how many landowners count on that day to fully enjoy their property.  Many landowners even change their plans during the week to avoid disturbing someone else’s hunting experience.

The importance to the public of having Sunday should not be underestimated either.  That is the day many non-hunters enjoy private land free from hunters or infringing on hunting activities.  

One of the arguments for allowing hunting on Sunday is that many hunters work on Saturday or have children or grandchildren in school activities - so they need the opportunity to hunt on Sunday.  Just as many woodlot owners work on Saturday or care about school activities as well.  Sunday may be the one day a woodland owner gets to fully enjoy their own property.

As an organization, we support hunting and always have.  It is telling that the most forceful opposition to hunting on Sunday is not from those opposed to hunting, but from landowners and farmers. These are the very same people who provide more than 90% of the hunting opportunities in Maine – for free. And the same people that overwhelming support the tradition of hunting in general.

If the purpose of this bill is to enhance hunting opportunities or wildlife resource management, there is a simple way of doing that.  Lengthen the hunting seasons.  Earlier this session we supported expansion of turkey hunting opportunities.  In other legislative sessions, we have also supported creation of youth hunting days, expanded archery seasons, muzzle loader seasons, a spring turkey season and others.

Economic development is sometimes cited as a justification to allow Sunday hunting.  A Maine Office of Tourism & Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife commissioned study showed that hunting contributes $338.7 million dollars to the Maine economy - an impressive figure.  Just as impressive is 90% or more of all that economic activity is predicated upon access to private land.  The $338.7 million dollars does not include the impact of snowmobiling, trapping, ATV riding, all provided through access to private land.  Approximately, 95% of 14,000 miles of snowmobile trails and 7,000 miles of ATV trails in Maine are located on private land.  Whether it is hunting or any of these other outdoor activities, landowners are providing those opportunities for free. 

Why put the outdoor economy of this state at risk over an activity that is based on free access to private land when, at best: only half the hunters in Maine support Sunday hunting;  the majority of landowners and farmers do not support Sunday hunting; and the public, overwhelmingly, opposes Sunday hunting?

Over the years, just about every possible scenario to get some type of Sunday hunting enacted has been tried. We believe that Sunday hunting in any form is bad for landowners; is bad for hunters; is bad for recreational users and perhaps, most importantly, is bad public policy. 

We are hard pressed to think of a policy change that could do more damage to landowner/user relations than Sunday hunting.

We urge you to oppose this bill.

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