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Senate Bill that would expand Sunday hunting faces obstacles

Everybody Adventures | Bob Frye
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It remains to be seen whether deer hutners will be able to go afield on a Sunday in Pennsylvania this fall.

The battle is not over.

Pennsylvania state Senators recently approved, by a 36-14 vote, an amended Senate Bill 147 that calls for allowing hunting on three Sundays each year.

Supporters called it a victory, albeit a smaller one than they envisioned.

But it remains far from a done deal. Questions remain, regarding if the bill will become law and, then, when it might be implemented.

One of the biggest issues centers around access to private property.

Senate Bill 147 initially called for simply eliminating the statutory prohibition on Sunday hunting. That would have allowed the Pennsylvania Game Commission to decide which Sundays, if any, to add to the calendar.

Later, Sen. Dan Laughlin, the Erie County Republican who authored the legislation, proposed permitting hunting on 14 Sundays, again to be determined by the commission.

In the end, he said, he negotiated that down to the three days specified to get enough votes to move the bill.

That’s something the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau — the largest, most organized opponent on the bill — wanted.

Laughlin also agreed to add trespassing language to it. The bill makes trespassing a primary offense, something that carries stiffer penalties. Game Commission wardens also could enforce it.

The Farm Bureau wanted that, too.

It hasn’t gotten the one other thing it really wants, though. And that might hold things up.

At its annual meeting last November, Farm Bureau leaders said they would drop their opposition to Sunday hunting and take a neutral stance if a host of conditions were met.

The one that hasn’t been yet is a provision requiring hunters to “obtain written permission from farmers and other private landowners, before they could hunt on private land on Sundays,” Farm Bureau spokesman Mark O’Neill said.

Without it, the bill doesn’t “go far enough for Farm Bureau to take a neutral position,” he added.

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.

Laughlin previously said he isn’t willing to go that far. Landowners already have the authority to require written permission, he said then. It need not be specified in law.

This might be a case where the Game Commission and Farm Bureau agree, however.

Jason Raup, legal counsel for the commission, said it generally supports the notion of enhancing trespass enforcement. It’s admittedly one of the least effectively enforced laws on the books statewide, he noted.

But, at Senate Bill 147 is written now, all trespass violations would be treated the same, as higher level, “defiant trespass” cases, he said. That would mean arrests and handcuffs.

“I don’t know that the agency wants to have to handle all trespass offenses that way,” Raup said.

Better, he said, would be to tweak the language in the bill to create “tiered” violations. They could protect landowners, he said, while giving courts, prosecutors and investigating officers flexibility in determining penalties.

A written permission requirement might be the best, easiest way to do that, he suggested.

“There are some (trespass cases) that are intentional, so let’s treat those more seriously. And there are some that are inadvertent or low level, and we need a mechanism to treat them with a lesser penalty,” Raup said.

The commission is talking to lawmakers about those possibilities.

In the meantime, Senate Bill 147 is before the House of Representatives game and fisheries committee. Lawmakers there are expected to discuss it when they return to session Sept. 17.

They will be in session 24 days before year’s end: six days each in September, October, November and December.

Laughlin previously said he expected the bill to move quickly, and perhaps go before Gov. Tom Wolf for his signature early in fall.

If that happens, Laughlin said, he wants the Game Commission to cram one Sunday into the hunting calendar this fall.

It might actually be able to do that, Raup said. Whether it will, or even should, is more debatable.

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.

Perhaps not, though. The commission has talked to the state Attorney General’s office about options.

With just two meetings left this year, one this month and another Oct. 1, it can’t pass “anticipatory” regulations, or rules based on something lawmakers might do, Raup said. The Attorney General’s office confirmed that.

But, he pointed out, the amended bill as written specifies which Sundays would be open to hunting.

Under that scenario, it seems as if the agency’s executive director could add those dates to the calendar on his own.

“But the real issue comes down to, do we just not have enough time?” Raup said.

If Senate Bill 147 isn’t yet law by late October or even early November, that raises the question of whether the commission can not only add a Sunday to the calendar, but do it and actually get word out to the public of the change in time.

“I think the later into the fall that we go, the less wise it becomes, even if we have the authority to do it,” Raup said. “It’s just not clear right now that that’s going to be feasible.”

The commission doesn’t want to rush things to the point of causing problems, he said. So — even if Senate Bill 147 becomes law late this fall — it may wait to act on it until January. Then, commissioners can add Sundays to the 2020-21 seasons through their normal process.

Article by Bob Frye,
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