A North Carolina girl and her father prepare to hunt together. Photo by Thomas Harvey / NC Wildlife Resources Commission

Since 1869, Sunday hunting on public land in North Carolina has been prohibited. It’s the legacy of laws whose origins were designed to restrict commerce and activity on Sunday for religious reasons.

That could be changing.

Last fall, hunter C.J. Flay of Wilkes County, who operates a Facebook page calling for the state to allow Sunday hunting, took down a three-point buck after attending church in the morning.

His catch, however, was lawful because he shot it on private land, which the General Assembly legalized in 2015. Flay’s current chase is to see the Sunday hunting ban on public land fall by the wayside.

“Hunters who rely on public land are handicapped,” Flay said. “If you’re working Monday to Friday, you only have access one day per week. The number of hunters are dwindling. We really need the public game lands for hunters, because quite frankly, if we don’t have a place to hunt, you’re going to lose the hunter.”

This year, the state Wildlife Resources Commission, the public agency with the authority to open Sunday hunting on public game lands, will study the possibility of lifting the restriction and invite the public to weigh in.   

In 2010, the WRC opened Sunday hunting with archery equipment on private land. In 2015, the Outdoor Heritage Act lifted the ban on Sunday hunting with firearms on private land. A revision in 2017 removed several exceptions and transferred the regulatory authority of Sunday hunting on public lands from the General Assembly to the WRC.

In all, the state agency regulates wildlife and habitat on 2 million acres of land. The land is owned by the WRC and other state agencies but also includes tracts of game land owned by land trusts and the federal government for public hunting, trapping and inland fishing.  

Brian McRae, the land and water access section chief of the WRC, said the agency will conduct four to six public listening sessions this spring across the state and form a stakeholders group to weigh in on concerns and opportunities presented by allowing hunting on Sunday. McRae said it is possible that Sunday sportsmen may have access to some public lands in the state as soon as the 2020 hunting season.

According to the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, a hunter advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., North Carolina stands nearly alone in its ban on Sunday hunting. Sunday hunting on public land is legal in some capacity in 46 states, and 40 states have no hunter restrictions on Sunday.

“Sunday hunting on public lands is legal and occurs with little conflict in most of the country,” said John Culclasure of Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. “We’re optimistic North Carolina hunters, who generate millions of dollars annually for public lands acquisitions through the purchasing of hunting licenses and paying excise taxes on hunting-related equipment, will be provided with access to public lands seven days a week like other user groups.”

But Sunday hunting is a divisive topic in North Carolina, and McRae said the commission will weigh the decision carefully.

According to a survey conducted by the WRC last summer, users of North Carolina game lands are split. The opinion survey was opened for several weeks in July and August to take the public’s temperature surrounding the issue. The survey targeted and requested information on 61 game lands in North Carolina regarding interest in Sunday hunting. Of the 5,885 people who responded, 53.2 percent were in favor of Sunday hunting on public land, and 46.8 percent opposed the idea.

A 2006 survey conducted for the WRC by Virginia Tech University and Responsive Management Inc., a public opinion research firm, revealed that 65 percent of North Carolina citizens opposed the legalization of Sunday hunting versus 25 percent who were in favor.

Lena Gallitano of Raleigh, a board member of Audubon North Carolina, said the 2018 survey was flawed and skewed toward the opinions of hunters. She’s concerned that opening hunting on Sunday will have an impact on birding in the state, particularly at locations on the North Carolina Birding Trail, some of which are on game lands. She said wildlife viewing contributes nearly $1 billion annually to the state economy.

“I don’t believe the survey was reflective of a broader population,” she said. “We need to have a public conversation where everyone gets to express their opinions and propose a rule that reflects the views of everyone.”

Among the respondents to the survey, 19.94 percent said that they participated in hunting on game lands in North Carolina. The next-largest category of respondents identified as hikers (15.65 percent), and 10.35 percent of the respondents participate in wildlife watching or birding.

Greg Andeck, the director of strategy and government relations at Audubon NC based in Durham, said that while individual members and local Audubon chapters may be opposed to opening Sunday hunting on public land, “the state organization is waiting to see the outcome of the WRC study before we formally take a position. We think the WRC is being very smart to carefully study the issue and fully understand the impact on multiple user groups in the state.”

McRae said the agency used various channels to share the survey, such as using social media platforms, reaching out to user groups, posting at outdoor gear and sports stores, and email blasts. “We tried to get this information out as best we could,” McRae said. “We recognize that the survey didn’t guarantee a representative sample of our users and was not scientific. It was intended to gauge public opinion.”

Last October, the survey results were presented to the commissioners of the WRC. All future rule changes and regulations administered by the WRC are proposed and discussed in October.  The presentation of the survey results coincided with a proposal to open Sunday hunting on 30 of the 61 game lands in North Carolina.

At the meeting, the WRC postponed a decision on Sunday hunting on game lands.

“This is such a big decision that the board wanted to table for now and get more information to make sure we make the right decision,” McRae said.

The issues

Among the survey comments, many opposed to Sunday hunting suggested that wildlife needs a rest or expressed attitudes about hunting. For example, wildlife is “already hunted too hard and too long,” “animals need a day free from fear” and “I believe in the rights of wild animals to live without being hunted for sport.”

Of the comments opposed to Sunday hunting, 11 percent cited religious beliefs. Others remarked about user conflicts with other recreational activities, such as horseback riding, hiking, and birding. Noise was also a concern. Some cited the impacts on game populations and wildlife habitat by hunting an additional day of the week.

McRae said the WRC board members will use their professional judgment to determine whether the impact on habitats and wildlife populations are sustainable before altering hunting rules.  

The most cited concern of survey respondents was safety.

That unease is shared by Tom Tribble of Asheville, who is president of the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society.

Tribble said two game lands in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Green River in Henderson and Polk counties and Sandy Mush near Asheville, are popular among birders during the spring and fall bird migration.

The problem, he said, is that mornings are the best time to bird and the best time to hunt.

“The blaze orange doesn’t protect you from the bullet,” said Tribble, who does not believe that bird watching and hunting are compatible at the same time in the same place. While he understands why hunters want access on Sunday, “it cuts both ways,” he said. “Birders have jobs, and weekends are the only time they can get out to bird.”

The odds of a hunter’s bullet striking a nonhunter are “well over one-in-a-million,” Sunday hunting advocate Flay said. “Right now hunting is safer than riding a horse, playing football, taking a bath or playing pingpong.”

During the 2017-18 hunting season in North Carolina, the WRC reported 27 hunting-related accidents, five of them deaths. Each of the deaths involved falls from tree stands.  According to the International Hunter Education Association, in many cases, fatalities were self-inflicted by hunters or occurred within hunting parties.

Flay said hunters and other recreational users share public lands every other day of the week. “People can still be riding their horses or riding their bikes on Fridays and Saturdays when there are hunters,” he said. “But what makes a hunter more dangerous supposedly on Sunday than on the other days of the week? If I’m in the woods, I’m going to be lucky if I fire once or twice on any given day. Most of the time I’m sitting there quietly enjoying nature.”

Nevertheless, Tribble said many birders are reluctant to visit areas used during hunting season because of their concerns for safety.

Kate Dixon, the executive director of the Friends of the Mountains to Sea Trail, said seasoned hikers are used to hunting. Her concern is “people new to exploring natural lands that aren’t aware of the precautions, rules and seasons of hunting.”

The nearly 700-mile footpath crosses several game lands, including the Holly Shelter Game Land northeast of Wilmington.

“I expected that we would get a lot of responses opposed to Sunday hunting, but that wasn’t what happened,” said Dixon, whose organization shared the survey on its Facebook page. “We heard from members saying that I’m a hiker and hunter and have limited time when I can hunt.”

All or nothing?

If Sunday hunting is opened on public game land, according to McRae, it may not necessarily be a blanket yes-or-no decision.

“There are locations where our partners do not think Sunday hunting is a good fit,” he said. For example, portions of Pisgah National Forest are state game lands. If national forest land managers choose to prohibit Sunday hunting, the WRC would abide by that decision. The WRC will also examine where user conflicts are most likely.

Gallitano of Raleigh said she prefers a blanket yes or no to Sunday hunting, since opening some game lands and closing others could cause confusion.

Flay hopes the WRC will pay special attention to hunters since their license fees have helped support the purchase and management of game lands for decades.

In 2018, 24 percent of the agency’s receipts, or $20.2 million, came from fishing and hunting license receipts.

Andeck of Audubon NC said every state taxpayer contributes to the purchase and expansion of game lands ($12.1 million worth were state appropriations in 2018).  In addition, Dixon of the Mountains to Sea Trail said hikers and other user groups provide volunteer hours to maintain trails used by hunters.

“As a state agency, I trust that they represent all North Carolinians,” Andeck said of the WRC.

“At the end of the day, whether you are a hunter or birder, we share a love for the outdoors and have made great strides together in promoting wildlife stewardship. I think we have to stay together and not kill the golden goose by promoting one type of public land use at the expense of others.”

McRae said the next step in the decision to open game lands to Sunday hunting or continuing the restriction would include a recommendation for consideration by the WRC rule-making body in October. If a rule change is recommended, it would be presented to the public for comment in January 2020, and a final decision made in February 2020.

If passed, Sunday hunting could be open in time for the 2020 season and end a prohibition that many hunters see as unreasonable.

“It’s an unfair blue law targeted at hunters,” said Flay.

“There should be no reason for us not to be able to hunt on public lands on Sunday. You’re allowing people to ride horses there. You’re allowing them to go hiking there. Pick mushrooms. But I’m getting penalized as a law-abiding citizen because I want to hunt on Sunday on public land.”

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