The 434th session of the Maryland General Assembly adjourned a week ago today, Monday, April 7, 2014.  During the 90 day session, 2,672 bills were introduced and 811 were passed. The Governor has begun signing bills into law.

One of the core missions of the Maryland Horse Council is to represent the interests of the equestrian community to the legislators. When finances allow, MHC retains the assistance of a lobbyist, although most of the legislative efforts put forth by the Council are grassroots driven. This year, MHC hired well-known lobbyist Frank Boston.

The Maryland Horse Council fought a long and valiant battle to preserve Safe Sundays for riders and others to enjoy time in the outdoors on Sundays during hunting season without fear of accidental adverse encounters with hunters. MHC testified against a number of Sunday hunting bills, but also testified in support of a bill that would train hunters in certain south counties.

In addition to an aggressive battle against expanded Sunday deer hunting, MHC also testified in support of bills to extend the life of the Maryland Horse Industry Board (MHIB), in support of harness racing organization funding, and in support of a bill that could potentially increase opportunities for composting horse manure. MHC submitted testimony in opposition to several bills relating to liability for dog bites, and submitted comments on the Maryland Department of the Environment’s proposal governing Erosion and Sediment Control Plans and Stormwater Management Plans, and their proposed regulations governing composting facilities.

Sunday Deer Hunting: Battles Won, Battles Lost

The Maryland Horse Council has worked alongside other organizations representing outdoor recreation interests to block the expansion of Sunday hunting in Maryland. Senators and delegates listened at hearing after hearing as MHC members and allies – including avid deer hunters – testified in support of one day each week from October into January when other recreational users (hikers, bikers, bird-watchers, equestrians, and others) can have safe access to all lands, public and private.

Despite MHC’s support for hunting in general, for decreasing the deer population specifically; despite MHC’s testimony supporting increased training opportunities for sharp shooters for managed hunts, despite the fact that many of the MHC members testifying against expanded Sunday deer hunting were gun hunters themselves, MHC was repeatedly vilified in the general media for secretly being “anti-hunting.”

Anne Arundel County farm owners Steuart Pittman and Christy Clagett (also a joint Master for the Marlborough Hounds) was successful in recruiting scores of local horse people to testify against the various Anne Arundel and Calvert County Sunday Hunting bills, creating a very strong grassroots movement in Anne Arundel, with a ripple effect throughout Southern Maryland, all of which helped to defeat attempts to expand Sunday deer hunting in those parts of Maryland.

Unfortunately, the bills to expand Sunday hunting in Western Maryland proved harder to defeat, despite the yeoman’s effort made by Boonsboro farm owner, foxhunter and deer hunter, Joe Michael, who made the long wintry drive in from western Maryland on several occasions to add his voice and credibility to oppose Sunday hunting. But it was a lonely position, as there did not seem to be as many horsemen from western Maryland willing or able to make the drive or to rally strong grassroots opposition as were the horsemen in Southern Maryland. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time to raise that level of grassroots opposition. SB 472/HB 406 and SB 473/HB 432 allow DNR to authorize Sunday hunting in Frederick, Allegany, Washington, and Garrett counties, one for just deer and the other for all species. Unfortunately, now it seems that residents of these counties are beginning to realize what it will mean for their 2014-2015 outdoor calendars. 

In the meantime, MHC would like to acknowledge the following legislators for their help: Senators Mike Miller, Joan Carter Conway, Roy Dyson and J. B. Jennings; Delegate Mike Busch, Maggie McIntosh and Barbara Frosh.

MHC Requests O’Malley To Veto

The Maryland Horse Council is requesting that the Governor veto the legislation, based on the premise that, “since 98% of Marylanders do not hunt, Sunday hunting should not be permitted unless it can be definitively shown that it is a critically essential tool for managing wildlife, and that no other method that preserves safe Sundays is effective.”

If the Governor is not willing to veto the legislation, then MHC is asking that the legislation be delayed until after publication of the requested study on the 2014 deer population management control measures has been completed.

Now that the horses are out, is it too late to close the barn doors? Veto Petition

Meanwhile, other outdoor groups are beginning to realize the full impact of ten years of expanded Sunday hunting on their respective sports, and that the original premise of “only one Sunday” or “only two Sundays” has been steadily expanding to all Sundays in the fall and winter (click here for the legislative history on the expansion of Sunday hunting in Maryland). The Maryland Ornithological Society has started a petition, “Martin O’Malley: Veto Sunday Hunting Bills.”

Conservation Chair Kurt Schwartz explained the position of the MOS: “The Maryland Ornithological Society (MOS) is a state-wide non-profit voluntary organization of about 1,600 members, dedicated to the study and preservation of birds. We heartily agree that the white-tailed deer population needs to be controlled. However, in the interests of balance, it is our position that the rest of the outdoor public, such as bird watchers, hikers, horseback riders, runners, etc., deserve one day a week to enjoy the outdoors on public lands, without the noise and potential risks associated with hunting.  Hunters are vital to habitat preservation and fund much of habitat acquisition, but they have six days out of seven to pursue their avocation.   One of our chapters, the Frederick Bird Club, holds its Fall Count on Sundays, just so it can avoid hunting, and safely access Wildlife Management Areas.”

Onward and Upward

However disappointing the legislative losses were in western Maryland, there were some encouraging milestones in other arenas.  In March, representatives of MHC met with DNR Secretary Joe Gill, DNR Legislative Director Rich Norling and Governor O’Malley’s Assistant Chief of Staff Ashley Valis. Representing the interests of the equestrian community were former MHC president Steuart Pittman, Christy Clagett, former MHC treasurer Royce Herman (also a licensed firearm instructor), Ed Fry (large Eastern Shore crop farmer, 2013 Maryland Farmer of the Year, horseman and the Master of the Flint Hill Hounds, a private pack), and Equiery publisher Crystal Kimball. The MHC representatives discussed the seeming incongruities of DNR’s position: on the one hand, lobbying the legislature that more hunting days are necessary in order to reduce the deer population, but DNR’s regulator proposals designed to increase the deer herd and DNR’s opposition to a bill that would have trained more sharp shooters for managed deer hunts.

In response to MHC’s concerns, Secretary Gill asked the budget committees to include a request that DNR conduct a Deer Population Management Report (Committee Narrative K00A03.01) to assess the relative impact of Sunday hunting versus other deer herd reduction strategies.

DNR also appointed Boonsboro horseman, hunter and farmer Joe Michael to their Wildlife Advisory Committee, a which is comprised of citizen stakeholders appointed by the Governor and which works with DNR’s Wildlife and Heritage Services. All hunting matters in Maryland (from deer hunting to foxchasing) comes under the regulatory authority of DNR’s Wildlife & Heritage Services. Joe’s participation on that committee will improve the Maryland Horse Council’s ability to better inform our members of DNR intentions with respect to hunting days, and will likewise improve our ability to communicate with DNR on hunting-related matters that impact our member which ride on open land (public and private). Joe Michael is the first horseman to serve on the committee since Ed Fry’s term ended several years ago. The Equiery is thrilled to see a horseman/foxhunter who is also a gun hunter occupy that seat, and we are confident that Joe Michael will be an asset not only to the equestrian community but also to the hunting and wildlife management community as well.