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Legislators consider Sunday hunting

| Saturday, Nov. 1, 2003

As a professional guide, Ray Smith takes dozens of Pennsylvania hunters to Kansas and Texas each year to pursue turkeys and white-tailed deer.

Getting sportsmen from elsewhere to hunt those same species in the woods around his Lycoming County home, though, is a lot tougher.

There are a couple of reasons for that, Smith said, but the biggest is that it's illegal to hunt on Sundays in Pennsylvania.

"It would be much easier for me to sell a hunt, be it for deer or turkeys or small game or whatever, if a person could have a long weekend," said Smith, owner of River Valley Outfitters. "A working man could have a good hunt without having to miss a lot of work.

"But right now, there's no real advantage for people to come to Pennsylvania to hunt."

The debate about whether to change that is about to heat up.

State Rep. Marc Gergley, a McKeesport Democrat, is drafting a resolution that would task the House Legislative Budget and Finance Committee with studying the impact -- economic and otherwise -- of legalizing Sunday hunting for deer and waterfowl in Pennsylvania.

Gergley plans to introduce the resolution before the House of Representatives goes out of session Dec. 17. If it is approved by a majority of House members, the study could begin early in 2004.

"Times are changing. We need, in Pennsylvania, to step forward and discuss these things," Gergley said. "It's not 1950 any more."

The idea of Sunday hunting is not new to Pennsylvania. About five years ago, the state House Game and Fisheries Committee conducted six public hearings to gauge support for legislation that would have allowed hunting on two Sundays during the rifle deer season.

State Rep. Bruce Smith, a York County Republican and chairman of that committee, said most opposed the idea. Even state Rep. Dan Surra, the Elk County Democrat who sponsored that legislation and who is supporting Gergley's resolution now, admitted "we got our heads handed to us politically."

But there might be more support for Sunday hunting this time around.

Three different bills that would allow Sunday hunting in one form or another were proposed in the House of Representatives this year, attracting from 13 to 20 sponsors.

Gov. Ed Rendell wants his Advisory Council for Fishing, Hunting and Conservation to explore the pros and cons of Sunday hunting, too, said his press secretary, Kate Philips.

That council is still being formed, but Robb Miller, Rendell's sportsmen's adviser, already has been working with Gergley to draft the Sunday hunting resolution.

"I like the idea of Sunday hunting," Miller said. "Until the governor tells me to back off -- and I don't think he will -- this is one of those issues we need to educate ourselves about."

Pennsylvania has allowed Sunday fishing since 1937 but is one of only six states -- all in the Northeast -- that still prohibits Sunday hunting. The ban is a remnant of the state's "blue laws," which also previously forbade stores, movie theaters and the like from being open on Sundays.

Proponents of Sunday hunting -- including Roxane Palone, a member of the Pennsylvania Game Commission board from Greene County -- say lifting the ban would provide many benefits.

"Certainly there would be more opportunities for small-business owners and other people who work six days a week to get out, and get out with their children," Palone said.

"We do everything else on Sundays. I'm not saying that's right or wrong. But if we have lottery tickets on Sundays, we have all of our stores open on Sunday, liquor stores are now open on Sundays, why not have hunting, too?"

Ralph Saggiomo, president of the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania, said Sunday hunting is critical to recruiting new hunters from among the youths who can play soccer, see a movie, or play on a computer every day of the week.

"I'm 68 years old. Do I need Sunday hunting• No," Saggiomo said. "But do my children need it• Yes. Will my grandchildren need it probably even more• Yes."

There would be economic benefits to allowing Sunday hunting, too, said Barry Wickes, president of the Pennsylvania Tourism and Lodging Association, which represents 700 hotels, motels, resorts, and bed and breakfasts across the state.

"If a guy wants to hunt Saturday, and then he can also hunt Sunday, he's going to have to stay overnight somewhere and spend some money on lodging, gas and food. So it's going to have an impact, a positive economic impact," Wickes said.

Gergley said Sunday hunting also likely would help the Game Commission meet its deer harvest goals by giving hunters a day -- free of work -- when they could actually hunt.

"You can give me all the Mondays in the world, but it's not going to do me any good, because I can't hunt," Gergley said. "We need to match opportunity with reality."

The biggest opponent of Sunday hunting here always has been the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, which represents more than 33,000 families statewide, and that's still true.

That's not to say every farmer opposes Sunday hunting. Phil Long, a bureau member from New Alexandria, said he'd be open to Sunday hunting if it meant hunters could shoot more of the deer that eat up to $15,000 worth of his crops every year.

But most bureau members don't want Sunday hunting, he admitted.

Doug Gilbert, of Crawford County, chairman of the bureau's state wildlife committee, agreed. He said that farmers who put up with trespassers, littering and other intrusions like having their land to themselves one day a week and are willing to act to keep it that way.

"If farmers have to go to the extreme of posting their land to have one day to themselves, they will. That's the simplest way to put it," Gilbert said.

No one seems sure whether sportsmen want Sunday hunting, or how badly they want it.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission -- which has never taken a formal stance on Sunday hunting -- has surveyed sportsmen about Sunday hunting several times over the last 12 years. Those results seem to indicate that attitudes are changing.

In a 1991 survey, 62 percent opposed Sunday hunting for deer. In 2001, though, only 50 percent opposed Sunday hunting of turkeys, and in a 2002 survey, 61 percent supported Sunday hunting of groundhogs.

At the same time, though, the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs has discussed Sunday hunting on three occasions in the last five years and found little support for it, said Ray Martin, chairman of the group's game and trapping committee.

"Everybody says, 'Oh, times have changed,' but when I brought it up, it was very strongly opposed," Martin said.

Several nearby states have eliminated their bans on Sunday hunting in recent years, albeit not without compromise and contention.

Ohio went to Sunday hunting for all species in 2002. Members of Ohio's farm bureau initially opposed the idea, fearing they would be overrun with hunters, said Randy Miller, assistant chief of the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

Those attitudes changed, though, when the state agreed to strengthen its trespass laws.

"Enforcing trespassing is one of our top priorities now," Miller said. "If we get a call and we have an officer to send, we go. Our farmers seem pretty happy with that arrangement."

Maryland will allow hunting on private property on two Sundays -- Nov. 2, which is the first day of the archery deer season, and Nov. 30, the first day of the rifle deer season -- for the first time this fall.

Just getting those two days, though, took four years of work, said Bill Miles, a registered lobbyist who worked on the issue.

"When I'm on my deathbed, it will be the greatest legislative achievement of my career," Miles said. "It was a major, major, brutal undertaking. But we won."

It might be just as hard for Gergley to get his resolution approved. He and Smith agree that Sunday hunting is controversial enough that some might not want to even study it.

Gergley, though, is convinced Sunday hunting will and must be a part of Pennsylvania's future.

"We're in (Sunday hunting's) childhood stages. Not its infancy, but its childhood stages," Gergley said. "We've just got to keep chipping away at it."

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