Yesterday, the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee heard Senate Bills 472 and 473.

SB 472: Authorizing the Department of Natural Resources to allow a person in Allegany County, Garrett County, or Washington County to hunt any game mammal on a Sunday on specified public and private land during the open season for that game mammal.

SB 473: Authorizing the Department of Natural Resources to allow a person to hunt deer on a Sunday on specified property from the first Sunday in October through the second Sunday in January of the following year, inclusive, in Allegany County, Garrett County, and Washington County, subject to specified provisions of law. 

Although it has not yet been posted to the Maryland General Assembly website, we understand that bill is to be amended to include Frederick County.

Horseman and sportsman, farmer and deer hunter, and Washington County resident Joe Michael testified on our behalf against these bills: 

As a Washington County taxpayer, deer hunter, and landowner, I encourage our legislature not to enable expansion of Sunday hunting for Washington County at this time. 

I understand that this is largely a ‘courtesy bill’ and great deference will be given to my county’s legislators, but my primary point is that insufficient input has been received from county residents and those stakeholders that enjoy hunting-free Sundays in Washington County.  I believe that other options should be considered for expanded hunting opportunities in Washington County and that this matter should be put off for at least one year to take greater public comment.

In addition to being a deer hunter I am an avid horseman, kayaker, walker, and fall fisherman, and am part of a family in which not every member enjoys deer hunting.  Even on our own property, deer hunting already brings other outdoor activities to a standstill, due to safety worries and inevitable conflicts of interest with hunters who feel that other activities might spoil their sport.  The State has already dramatically extended deer hunting season and already allows plenty of Sunday hunting, which has caused our access to other equally fine autumn pursuits to be curtailed that much further.  

Expanded Sunday hunting would even further discourage access to our wonderful natural heritage by non-deer hunters during some of the most beautiful and scenic times of the year.  Users of the Appalachian Trail, the C&O Canal, the Western Maryland Rail-Trail, and our many other scenic resources (many of whom flock to our region in the fall, bringing tourist dollars with them) already think twice before venturing out during hunting season, frequently waiting until hunting-free Sundays to enjoy riding, hiking, and biking activities.  It is important to note that even if hunting is not actively occurring within the confines of these recreational areas, the impact of hunting is still felt and users still feel discouraged by the sights and sounds associated with hunting, and they may take their tourist contribution elsewhere.

It appears that Sunday hunting is ‘aimed’ at the ample and often over-abundant deer population.  I point out that the 2013-2014 season provided 133 days of deer hunting opportunity from September 6 through January 31, with hunting already open on 7 Sundays in October and November.  In the eastern portion of the County an archery hunter can already harvest an unlimited number of antlerless deer in addition to 2 bucks by bow, and the 24 deer that he or she could harvest with modern and muzzleloading firearms.  On top of these generous bag quotas, farmers and orchardists besieged with ravaging deer herds are entitled to cull the herd with deer management permits to avoid crop damage at appropriate times during the balance of the year.  No one would disagree that fair chase hunting is our best deer population management tool, but additional Sundays to hunt (at the expense of other recreational users) do not necessarily equal a larger number of deer harvested.  The answer lies in encouraging more sportsmen and women, especially in our younger generations, to get out and safely enjoy our hunting heritage during the time already generously allotted under our laws.

The Maryland legislature initially authorized limited Sunday hunting in Washington County in 2003, and the number of Sundays available in Washington County has steadily increased to the seven Sundays currently available, but the number of deer harvested has not necessarily increased.  Meanwhile the loss of those same Sundays has caused hardship for non-hunters’ enjoyment of the outdoors. 

I point out that Washington County is an area reserved for rifle deer hunting – and I strongly advocate the continued use of this humane hunting method.  With rifle hunting, however, there are greater impacts placed on the enjoyment of neighboring properties due to the great distances travelled by rifle projectiles, and the greater report of the rifle that may frighten other users – especially horses and dogs.  Neither the projectile, nor the report stops at the border of a private property open to hunting.  Other users already frequently forego their enjoyment of the Appalachian Trail and the C&O Towpath on Saturdays in favor of Sundays in the interest of safety and quiet enjoyment.  Even on my own property, I do not frequently venture out to ride my horses or train my hunting dogs during deer hunting season – except on Sundays.  Please do not take this option away, as the diversity of use contributes to our local economy as well as the quality of life in Washington County.

Finally there are seasonal businesses in addition to competeing sporting activities that depend on Sunday opportunities during deer season, including:  hiking, fishing, paddling, biking, mounted fox-chasing, unmounted rabbit chasing with beagles, but especially agri-tourism, cut-your-own Christmas tree farms, shooting ranges, and even licensed regulated shooting areas (bird hunting preserves).  These activities bring outside dollars to Washington County, and Sunday is one half of the busy weekend opportunity for these activities to thrive.  Six days a week are already taken up from September through January with deer season, making Sunday the prime time for these activities, and seven Sundays have already been lost.  Please do not erode these opportunities further.

The key to successful management of access to our wonderful natural resources is balance. We have reached that balance point, and as a hunter, I encourage our legislature not to authorize an even greater denial of access to the outdoors for non-hunting activities, but instead to postpone decision on this issue until some form of public hearing is held within Washington County that would give voice to both hunters and non-hunting users of our outdoors.  After a meaningful discussion, I am certain that there are better ways to increase the deer harvest and hunters’ access, while maintaining or improving non-hunters’ enjoyment.