WILKES-BARRE — It is a law that dates all the way back to the founding of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania — hunters are forced to hang up their boots and store their firearms on Sundays.
William Penn and the Quakers created “blue laws” based on religious beliefs when they founded the state in the early 1700s. Organized sporting events could not be held on Sundays, and the sale of liquor and vehicles were also restricted on Sundays.
But now football games are a Sunday tradition. And some state-operated wine and spirit stores are beginning to open their doors for business.
Jay Delaney, a state Game Commission board member and the chief of the Wilkes-Barre Fire Department, is in favor of allowing hunting on Sunday, too.
As the law stands now, hunters can’t hunt on Sundays, even on their own property. A few species, such as coyote and feral swine, are exempt from the Sunday ban. Delaney said private and public property should also be open every day of the week.
“We have 1.5 million acres of state game land that hunters bought and paid for,” he said. “Why are we telling those folks … they can’t use it on that particular day?”
The deer rifle season ended on Saturday.
Hunter backs ban
But hunter Jason Azarewicz, 40, of Kingston, is in favor of the ban.
Azarewicz has been a hunter since his father introduced him to the sport when he was about 8 years old. He explained that a majority of the land used by hunters is privately owned by farmers, and hunters need permission to hunt the lands legally.
Around his residence, he said farmers have said that they do not want to be bothered on Sundays by hunters.
If the ban is lifted, Azarewicz said farmers near him said they would post their property. Even if farmers posted their land as private, he said some hunters would hunt there anyway. He said much of his property is posted as private, but he has caught people on his land illegally.
Azarewicz also is concerned Sunday hunting could hurt the deer herd.
“I’m looking at the big picture here,” he said. “I think we’re going to hurt ourselves even more” if the ban is ever lifted.
Delaney did not think that allowing a seventh day for hunters would harm the deer herd. He said the deer herd is managed through how many antlerless deer tags are assigned.
“They (deer) don’t get a rest from coyotes and predators,” Delaney said.
Call for change
The Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Board of Game Commissioners passed a resolution in 2010 on Sunday hunting. A declining number of hunters, hunters going to states that offer Sunday hunting and hunters going out of state were some facts the resolution listed in favor of Sunday hunting.
Lifting the ban would “provide substantial economic benefits to rural areas and businesses by increasing money spent by hunters on lodging, food, gas and other incidental items,” the resolution stated.
Those economic benefits include $629 million in additional spending, $18 million in additional sales and income tax and 5,300 new jobs.
Travis Lau, spokesman for the Game Commission, said the resolution stops short of outright supporting Sunday hunting. Instead, “it says to the legislature that if the law was changed to permit hunting on Sundays, that the Game Commission would look at expanding Sunday hunting opportunities.”
While the Game Commission regulates hunting, the decision to remove the ban rests with the General Assembly. Several attempts by legislators have been made to remove the ban in the past, but all have failed.
“This resolution remains part of the board’s Policy Manual,” Lau said. He noted that the makeup of the board has changed since the resolution was passed. “From my perspective, it’s anybody’s guess what the board would do if the Legislature gave us authority to open up Sunday hunting.”
Delaney voted in favor of the resolution, and said it expressed that the Game Commission would like to have regulated authority to manage wildlife every day. He said Sunday hunting could be implemented in several ways. Some ideas he had were restricting it to small game only and restricting Sunday hunting to state Game Lands.
A grassroots movement is taking the fight against the ban to the courtroom.
Hunters United for Sunday Hunting (HUSH) filed a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Game Commission in July. The lawsuit claims that the ban is unconstitutional, and calls for a temporary or permanent removal of the ban.
Both Lau and Delaney declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Citizens weigh in
Comments on The Times Leader’s Facebook page were generally in favor of lifting the ban. One comment argued that hunting other game is already allowed on Sundays, so deer hunting should also be allowed.
Another comment countered that hunting on Sunday could potentially harm the deer population. Someone else disagreed that the herd would be affected.
“Lift the ban,” the comment stated. “Sunday hunting won’t change deer numbers either way. It will just give hunters more flexibility to choose which day they want to hunt.”
But Mark O’Neill, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said the organization “has long had a position opposed to any expansion on Sunday hunting in Pennsylvania.”
O’Neill said the organization is operated by farmers, and annual meetings are held. Farmers have been vocally opposed to the lifting of the ban, and O’Neill said farmers are not alone.
John Mertz, owner of Deer Path Riding Stable in White Haven, also likes that the ban is in place.
Metz’s property borders State Game Lands 40. He said hunters often go near the border of the two properties, which can frighten the horses. He usually closes his business for the first four or five days of buck season due to the number of hunters. Afterwards, he outfits his horses and riders with orange clothing so they stand out.
While he said he wouldn’t close down the store on Sundays if the ban were lifted, he said it would give him “one more thing to worry about.”
Hikers, bikers, birdwatchers, orienteers and scouting organizations are others that O’Neill said oppose the lifting of the ban.
“This is not an issue of farmers versus hunters,” O’Neill said. “It’s not as if it is all hunters in the state want Sunday hunting.”
Ken Fletcher, 49, of Wilkes-Barre, does.
Fletcher has been hunting for over 20 years. He also works, and said calling off to hunt is not always an ideal thing to do. He said the extra day would give working hunters like him an extra day to hunt and provide a boost to the local economy. Fletcher had his own idea of how Sunday hunting could be implemented.
“Why not start it off nice and slow with just archery, and then work up to gun?” he said.
Delaney acknowledged that not every hunter is in favor of Sunday hunting. He also said getting input from all stakeholders would be crucial if the ban is ever lifted.
“This debate has been happening for seven years, and maybe longer,” Delaney said. “I am respectful for both sides of this argument, and I think there could be compromise to make it work.”