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

The rule-making body of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has agreed to take the next step toward allowing Sunday hunting on select public game lands throughout the state. 

On Thursday, the 19-member governing commission consented to notify the public of the proposed rule change to allow Sunday hunting on more than half of the state’s game lands

Following a public comment period later this year, the commissioners will vote in February. If passed, the new rules will be effective in August 2021.

WRC staff recommended the rule change to allow hunting on Sunday based on the results of a two-year process that involved feedback from the public. The recommendation would open 55 of the 92 game lands to hunters on Sunday.

Brian McRae of the WRC said he’s satisfied with the public process leading up to the commission’s recommendation.

“There were strong feelings on both sides of the issue, but we feel like we’ve found a good compromise,” he said. “I feel very positive with where we ended up.”

Some units where other uses are popular, such as the Green River Game Land in Henderson and Polk counties, will remain closed to hunters on Sunday.

Responding to feedback

Kate Dixon, executive director of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, told Carolina Public Press she was impressed with the “analysis of user needs and impacts on wildlife. I appreciate the consideration they gave to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.”

The nearly 700-mile footpath crosses several game lands, including the Holly Shelter Game Land northeast of Wilmington. The 60,000-acre tract is among the units that will also remain closed on Sunday.

In 2010, the state opened Sunday hunting with archery equipment on private land. In 2015, the N.C. General Assembly lifted the Sunday ban on using firearms on private land.

Following legislation in 2017 that transferred the authority of regulating Sunday hunting on public lands from the General Assembly to the WRC, the commission postponed a decision to open Sunday hunting to gather more input from game land users.

Over the last two years, the WRC staff convened public meetings across the state, conducted focus groups and hired a third-party facilitator to examine the public’s input.

The results of the input were evaluated using a decision matrix that rated each game land based on its size, species availability, the proximity to urban areas, nonhunting recreational demands, the biological impact and several other criteria. 

Scoring process

During a summer retreat, WRC staff scored each game land with the matrix to determine the feasibility to accommodate Sunday hunting, McRae said.

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

For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer manages the Jordan Game Land in Chatham, Durham, Orange and Wake counties. The federal agency is opposed to Sunday hunting on the unit. 

McRae said the WRC will abide by the wishes of each landowner.

Dixon was surprised that the four national forests in North Carolina were among the game land units recommended for Sunday hunting. 

U.S. Forest Service public affairs officer Cathy Dowd said in an email that the agency “will support the decision made by NCWRC.”

The chair of the North Carolina chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Luke Weingarten, said many hunters rely on public land, and the prohibition on Sundays limits access. 

“I’m very pleased with the proposal and commend the WRC for their thorough and thoughtful work,” he told CPP in an email.

“Opening our public lands to hunting on Sundays in such a way that mirrors access hunters enjoy on private lands in North Carolina is a sizable step forward. While we still have a long way to go for truly equitable access on both public and private land, this is a movement worth celebrating.” 

Zach Wallace of Audubon North Carolina said members of his organization are glad that stakeholders had a chance to weigh in.

“We continue to be supportive of the process,” he said.

“The WRC should make its decision based on public input and the best available science to protect public land and the wildlife that call it home.”

An all-or-nothing approach to Sunday hunting across the state “wasn’t going to work,” and many of the stakeholders were willing to compromise, McRae said. 

The WRC also avoided site-specific limitations to Sunday hunting by season, game species or other factors to avoid confusion among users. Among the few exceptions is to continue to ban Sunday hunting for black bears in coastal units due to harvest concerns. 

John Culclasure of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation said that while his organization prefers that Sunday hunting be opened on all game lands, the recommendation “is a positive step supported by the WRC’s comprehensive public engagement process that involved hikers, bikers, birders and other users.” 

“Expanded hunting opportunities on 1.6 million acres would be a significant improvement for all sportsmen and women, particularly for working families that rely on public lands for outdoor access,” he said. 

The public can comment on the proposed rule change from Dec. 1 to Feb. 1. A vote to approve or amend the rule change will be held in February and, if passed, will be effective in time for the fall 2021 hunting season.

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Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jack@igelman.com.

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