Foxhunters in Virginia and Maryland are actively debating the legislative question of whether hunting with weapons should be permitted in their states and counties on Sundays. The issue is complex for organized foxhunting. On the one hand, in some areas during gun seasons, foxhunters and others like recreational trail riders, are not able to engage in their pursuits on days when shooting is legal. That can mean the only day hunts can hunt is Sunday. When deer seasons are extended, that may mean little or no season remains for mounted hunting. On the other hand, foxhunters as an organized group do not wish to antagonize their well-organized and much more politically powerful deer hunting brethren.
According to the Wildlife Management Institute, only 11 states carry vestiges of the now-outdated “blue laws” and prohibit or place substantial restriction on Sunday hunting, including Virginia, Maryland, North and South Carolina, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. In 2011 these states were targeted by a broad alliance of hunting interests who joined in a coordinated effort to expand Sunday hunting. The coalition cited a study which showed that increased Sunday hunting could result in the creation of 27,000 jobs, $730 million in increased wages, and contribute an added $2.2 billion to the economy. According to the Wildlife Management Institute, the study also showed that “there is no biological reason to ban hunting on Sunday and allowing the activity could be a boon to those who work long weeks or for children who are in school and have extracurricular activities through Saturday.”
The Virginia Board of Game and Inland Fisheries also took a strong position in favor of Sunday hunting, based upon increased revenue from doubling the number of available weekend hunting days, recruiting new hunters, and expanding opportunities for youth to hunt. The Virginia Farm Bureau opposed the expansion, both from a faith-based perspective as well as to preserve one day a week where horse owners and others might enjoy the countryside without worrying about hunters and their weapons.
As of this writing, Virginia is on track to permit Sunday hunting on private lands. The state Senate passed SB 154 decisively on February 10. Companion legislation passed in the House of Delegates at the end of January, and Governor McAuliffe is expected to sign the measure. Sunday hunting on state gamelands is not permitted at this time.
Maryland has adopted a county-by-county approach, and legislation is currently being debated in Anne Arundel County, home to the Marlborough Hunt, and in western Maryland's Washington County, where New Market-Middletown Valley has fixtures. The Maryland Horse Council is spearheading opposition to these bills. The Maryland Association for Wildlife Conservation, a statewide alliance of foxchasing, basseting, beagling and coon hunting participants in Maryland, is working to define a stance that protects game hunting rights while not eroding hunting opportunities for its members. The Marlborough Hunt has been very active on the Anne Arundel County measure, and representatives offered testimony in a public hearing last week.
Individual foxhunters in western Maryland have been contacting their legislators, and a hearing on the Senate bill to authorize Sunday hunting throughout the hunting season on both public and private lands is happening as this article goes to press. Joe Michael, a Washington county landowner, game hunter and foxhunter, who currently chairs the Hunt Committee of the New Market – Middletown Valley Hounds, requests that the legislature take another year to gather input from “both hunters and non-hunting users of the outdoors.” He continues, “The key to successful management of access to our wonderful natural resources is balance, and as a hunter, I encourage our legislature not to authorize an even greater denial of access to the outdoors for non-hunting activities.” Michael also points out that Washington county is an area where rifles are used for hunting, and he does not feel comfortable exercising his horses or working his hunting dogs, even on his own property, on active gun hunting days.
Following the hearing, the Washington County bill was amended to include Frederick County, Maryland, which could potentially increase the number of firearms hunting Sundays in that county from the current 2 to as many as 10 Sundays between September and January. Suddenly this issue now effects a county and its horsemen that thought itself “safe” from the Sunday hunting expansion and puts opponents in that area behind the curve in terms of contacting legislators and fighting expansion of the bill.
Foxhunters in many states find that they are able to cohabit successfully with their game hunting siblings. Creative arrangements could be instituted whereby game hunters utilize one portion of the day, while another portion be held open for those interested in foxhunting or other recreational pursuits. Landowners could certainly restrict use of their private properties along these lines if they wished. Hunting leases could be constructed in a way that accommodates the many facets of sport, although if deer hunters are paying substantial leases, they may also wield the bulk of the influence.
Public areas may be more problematic to share, but foxhunters could certainly participate in the process to let their views be known. Hunts that rely extensively on public grounds, such as the Goshen Hunt in Maryland, have chosen to keep their hounds in the kennel on the most popular weekend gun days. As the gun season expands, members of these clubs might be spurred to take a more active role to preserve their ability to use the parkland for their chosen sport.
Some have offered the clever suggestion that game hunters could use the early hours of the day, reserving the afternoons for those interested in foxhunting or other recreational pursuits. The challenge for the foxhunting community is to walk the tightrope between the broader hunting community and the recreational equestrian world. It is not always possible to ally with both. Nonetheless, as Michael reflected, “It is important to note that fox hunters, equine enthusiasts, and anyone interested in the preservation and thoughtful enjoyment of our outdoors, especially licensed hunters and fisherman who pay an extra tax for their sport, have more in common with each other than separating us.”