Waterfowl hunters dressed in camouflage aim at a flock of birds in the saltwater marshes at Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. Many national wildlife refuges permit waterfowl hunting as a traditional recreational use of renewable natural resources. Dr. F. Eugene Hester/USFWS

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After a long wait, firearm hunters in North Carolina can hunt on Sundays on the majority of the state’s public game lands.

The rule-making body of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission voted to open Sunday hunting on 51 public game lands throughout the state during open hunting seasons beginning in August.

Opening firearm hunting on Sunday was recommended by WRC staff and based on the results of a two-year process that involved feedback from the public. The staff recommended the agency open 55 game lands to Sunday hunting.

The agency is pleased with the process leading to the rule change, said Brian McRae, the land and water access division chief of the WRC. 

“We’re thankful to the public and our partners for being willing to work with us on this topic and help us reach an outcome that meets a variety of needs at our different game lands,” he said. 

The agency regulates wildlife and habitat on 2 million acres on 92 game lands. The WRC and other state agencies owns much of the land, but it also includes tracts of land owned by land trusts and the federal government for public hunting, trapping and inland fishing.

On Feb. 25, at its annual meeting to evaluate regulation changes, the 19-member governing commission of the WRC consented to the rule change, which will take effect in August. 

Pious origins

Over the last decade, hunting advocates have set their sights on lifting the ban.

In 2019, Wilkes County Sunday hunting advocate C.J. Flay told Carolina Public Press that the ban “is an unfair blue law targeted at hunters.” 

“There should be no reason for us not to be able to hunt on public lands on Sunday,” he said.

“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.”

The prohibition dates to 1869 and was created to restrict Sunday activity for religious reasons.

However, the antiquated blue law has unraveled in the last decade. 

In 2010, the state opened Sunday hunting with archery equipment on private land. In 2015, the General Assembly passed the Outdoor Heritage Act, which lifted the Sunday ban on using firearms on private land. 

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

Since then, 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 process confirmed that the topic of Sunday hunting is divisive.  

Among the biggest concerns were safety issues and the potential for user conflicts with other recreational activities, such as horseback riding, hiking and bird-watching. 

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

Despite the concerns of opening Sunday hunting, a majority of the participants in the public process said their concerns could be addressed, opening the door for a compromise. 

“It’s a game changer for folks that depend on public land for hunting access and brings North Carolina in line with most of the country,” said John Culclasure of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization. 

He said most states have repealed Sunday hunting blue laws, although restrictions remain in nearly a dozen states. 

Some limits remain

While Sunday hunting with firearms is now allowed on the majority of game lands, it didn’t completely separate from its pious origins. The new rules require hunters to hold their fire between 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. and stay beyond 500 yards of a place of worship.

Luke Weingarten, chairman of the North Carolina chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said the opening of Sunday hunting with firearms is a “tremendous win for access and opportunity.”

In particular, he said, many hunters rely on public land to hunt, and Sunday prohibitions limit access for most hunters who hunt on weekends and don’t have access to private land. 

“This rule change functionally doubles their time in the woods, and for many others it significantly enhances their opportunity to pass on our hunting heritage to current and future generations.”

Nevertheless, he’s disappointed that game lands close to urban areas will remain off limits to hunters on Sunday.

“It’s unfortunate that those living in our major metropolitan areas don’t benefit from this rule change with respect to the public lands nearest to them,” he said. “We want to make sure access and opportunity is equitable among all North Carolinians.”

For example, Sunday hunting remains prohibited on game lands where other uses are popular, such as Jordan Game Land near Raleigh, Butner-Falls Game Lands near Durham, and the Green River Game Land in Henderson and Polk counties. 

McRae said that 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. 

In addition, the WRC avoided site-specific limitations to Sunday hunting by season, game species or other factors to avoid confusion among users. 

Culclasure said opening Sunday hunting in North Carolina was a top priority of his organization.

“Sincere thanks to the commission for doing the right thing, and we hope to see more game lands opened for seven-day hunting in the near future,” he said.

The expansion of Sunday hunting is indeed a possibility in future seasons, McRae said.

“We will continually evaluate the effectiveness of this rule and adapt as needed,” he said.

“Specifically, we might be able to learn from what has worked and add more game lands. However, we might just as well learn that it’s not working in certain areas and remove those game lands from Sunday hunting.”    

Jack Igelman

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