It seems now not a matter of if but when.
On June 26, two days before taking their summer break, Pennsylvania state Senators approved an amended Senate Bill 147, perhaps — and as of yet, only perhaps — paving the way for expanded Sunday hunting in Pennsylvania.
Right now, hunters can pursue crows, coyotes and foxes on Sundays. That impacts very few, though. Indeed, Pennsylvania is generally labeled one of only a half dozen states in the country that prohibits widespread Sunday hunting.
Senate bill 147 would change things dramatically.
It would allow hunting on three Sundays: one in the statewide firearms deer season, one in the statewide archery season, and a third to be chosen by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
The bill also makes trespassing a primary offense, something that carries stiffer penalties. It also allows trespass to be enforced by Pennsylvania Game Commission wardens.
The bill passed the Senate 36-14. It now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration.
Sen. Dan Laughlin, the Erie County Republican who authored the legislation, expects it to meet quick approval there. He said he has commitments from House leaders, as well as the majority and minatory chairmen of the House game and fisheries committee, to move the bill as soon as lawmakers return to session in September.
With luck, Laughlin said, the bill will go before Gov. Tom Wolf for his signature in September or October at the latest.
“I feel pretty strongly that this is going to make it all the way,” Laughlin said. “I expect it to get signed into law because there’s no further pushback on it.”
That’s a matter of debate.
Laughlin’s bill originally called for allowing hunting on 14 Sundays, 10 in fall and four in spring. He amended that on the Senate floor to three days and addressed trespass – as per a deal struck in the Senate appropriations committee — to get the necessary votes, he said.
“Quite frankly, I had to negotiate with some of my members that are big (Pennsylvania) Farm Bureau fans,” Laughlin said.
The Farm Bureau has, for decades, opposed legalization of Sunday hunting.
At their annual meeting in November, Bureau leaders reiterated that opposition. They did, however — for the first time — say they would adopt a neutral stance if certain conditions are met.
Laughlin said the compromises he made addressed those.
But Farm Bureau spokesman Mark O’Neill disagreed. The Farm Bureau wants at least one further concession. That is a “requirement that hunters obtain written permission from farmers and other private landowners, before they could hunt on private land on Sundays,” he said.
Laughlin said he opposes that, as all private landowners already have the authority to implement whatever rules they want for their land. It need not be spelled out in state law.
But the Farm Bureau is adamant. Without that language, the bill doesn’t “go far enough for Farm Bureau to take a neutral position,” O’Neill said.
And it will take that message to lawmakers.
“Moving forward, we welcome the opportunity to discuss our position on the legislation with members of the House,” O’Neill added
Opposition also is still coming from the Keystone Trails Association, the state’s largest hiker group. Executive director Joe Neville said safety is the primary concern.
That’s based more on emotion than data, he admitted.
According to the Game Commission, 2018 marked six consecutive years with fewer than 30 hunting accidents — termed hunting-related shooting incidents — across Pennsylvania. There were none in the recently-concluded spring gobbler season.
That’s in a state with about 800,000 hunters.
“What people are going to see is that, all of the claims that they can’t go in the woods if they don’t hunt, they can’t go out and enjoy all that, it’s just a fallacy,” said Bryan Burhans, executive director of the Commission.
That’s no matter, Neville said. Statistics don’t make people feel safe.
And, he said, hikers fear that adding three Sundays added to hunting season will, in time, become more. That’s something Laughlin aadmitted he will seek eventually.
Hikers don’t want that, Neville said.
“I don’t think it will stop at three days. This is just going to open the door to further Sunday hunting down the road,” Neville added.
Sunday hunting has its supporters, too, though. They’re hailing its anticipated legalization as a step forward for the state’s hunting heritage and economy.
Harold Daub, executive director of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen and Conservationists — and formerly director of Hunters United for Sunday hunting — offered a comparison.
Years ago, he said, when the first casinos opened in Atlantic City, Pennsylvanians used to take their money to New Jersey to spend. Lawmakers noticed and opened casinos here to keep that revenue home.
It’s the same with Sunday hunting, Daub said.
In recent years, every state that touches Pennsylvania — Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and West Virginia — adopted Sunday hunting. That took hunters out of state.
Lawmakers — encouraged by a coalition of 20 statewide sportsmen’s groups — finally came to understand hunters were likewise taking their money elsewhere, he said.
Senate Bill 147, he said, is their way of stopping that.
“So hopefully this is a great example of when Pennsylvania conservationists come together, we get things moving,” Daub said.
“It took way to long to get here. But I’m glad we’re here now. We’ll take this small victory and build from there.”
State Sen. Jim Brewster, an Allegheny County Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, called it “an incredibly important piece of legislation for sportsmen and women in Pennsylvania.”
“Opening up selected Sundays for hunting will spur interest in the sport, increase the number of hunters, retain in-state hunters and attract men and women from other states,” Brewster said.
Laughlin agreed, and said there’s already evidence to that effect.
In April, Game Commissioners moved opening day of the statewide firearms deer season to the Saturday after Thanksgiving, rather than the Monday after. The idea was to provide colleges students, people just entering the workforce with limited time off and others with the chance to hunt.
Hunting license for the 2019-20 season went on sale June 17. After three days, they were running 25.34 percent ahead of the year before.
Travis Lau, communications director for the commission, said it is difficult to attribute that to any one thing. The commission did a lot more marketing this year than in the past, he noted.
But Laughlin sees the spike as proof hunters will come back to the sport if given the chance. Sundays are that opportunity, he said.
“I think this will put a lot more people in the woods, moving the deer around almost like when we were kids. I think it’s going to be good.”
Addressing the timing of Sunday hunting
When Sundays might be added to the hunting calendar remains to be seen.
Pennsylvania Game Commissioners adopt seasons and bag limits using a two-meeting process. They preliminarily approve them in January each year, then finalize them in April.
That would seem to rule out Sunday hunting until 2020, as seasons have been set for months already.
But Laughlin wants commissioners to try adding at least one Sunday to the hunting calendar this fall. He’s eyeing the one that falls on opening weekend of the statewide firearms deer season.
Commissioners next meet July 22-23. Laughlin suggested they preliminarily approve that Sunday then and follow up with final approval when they gather Sept. 30 and Oct. 1.
“That’s a little bit of a long shot, but I’m hoping for it,” Laughlin said.
Whether the commission can in fact do as he wants is “a big question mark,” said executive director Bryan Burhans.
There are two possibilities, though.
The first is the commission might be able to adopt an “anticipatory” regulation adding that Sunday in deer season to the calendar. It would go into effect only if lawmakers do what Laughlin says they will.
The second centers around the notion of an executive order.
The agency’s director can — if inclement weather suppresses harvest of a species — add time to hunting seasons. Previous directors took such action when snow or rain limited the deer kill during old three-day doe seasons.
But the language in that code also allows the director to add time to seasons when “certain wildlife species are available in sufficient numbers throughout the commonwealth or in specific areas,” Burhans said.
The commission’s legal team is discussing each option with the state Attorney General’s office to see what might be possible. Commission spokesman Bob D’Angelo said it’s “still waiting for a definitive answer.”
Burhans said no action will be taken before then.
“We want to make sure whatever we do, we do it right and don’t cause problems down the road,” Burhans said.