HARRISBURG — The state’s long-standing ban on Sunday hunting is in the cross-hairs of a bill passed by the Senate game and fisheries committee earlier this month.

The Senate Game and Fisheries committee voted 8-3 Feb. 5 to move a bill that would allow the Pennsylvania Game Commission to roll back the state’s ban on Sunday hunting.

The Game Commission has repeatedly urged the Legislature to give it the authority to allow Sunday hunting, and hunting groups have been increasingly ramping up their lobbying for the move.

The effort has long faced opposition from groups ranging from the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau to hiking organizations like the Keystone Trails Association.

Proponents of the move say it’s needed to help stem the decline in the number of hunters. Over the 10-year period ending in 2017, the number of hunters with adult resident licenses dropped 12 percent — from 665,719 in 2007 to 587,640 in 2017, according to Game Commission data.

That trend is only going to accelerate unless the state acts so that younger hunters begin to replace older hunters who may be less willing or able to continue pursuing the sport, said Harold Daub, executive director of Hunters United for Sunday Hunting, a group lobbying for the change.

“There’s a huge bubble of Baby Boomer hunters who are beginning to retire” from the sport, he said. Allowing Sunday hunting would be an important way to attract younger people who might not feel like they have time to hunt if they can’t do it on the weekend, Daub said.

Pennsylvania, Maine and Massachusetts are the only U.S. states that ban Sunday hunting.

While the Game Commission has asked for the authority to OK Sunday hunting, it’s far from clear how expansively the commission would act on the issue immediately, said Travis Lau, a spokesman for the commission.

“It doesn't necessarily mean that if given the authority they would expand Sunday hunting in all seasons, across the board," Lau said. "They could opt to allow Sunday hunting, say, only in firearms deer season. Until legislation is passed, there's no telling."

Daub said the Sunday hunting ban creates an “unfair situation” where hunters are the only outdoor enthusiasts who can’t participate in their preferred activity seven days a week.

A number of states have relaxed their hunting blue laws in recent years and there’s no indication that there were negative impacts that made any of them rue the decision, Daub said.

Delaware legalized Sunday hunting last year. Maryland has limits on Sunday hunting, but there is legislation in that state to relax the Sunday hunting restrictions.

In New York, Sunday hunting was opened in 1996 for three Sundays during the gun season, according to the Congressional Sportsman’s Foundation, a lobbying group. Five years later, the entire state allowed Sunday hunting throughout the year, with few exceptions. In Ohio, a three-year trial period for Sunday hunting was initiated in 1998 and then became permanent in 2002.

Opponents of the move say the Sunday ban is needed to give non-hunters an opportunity to enjoy time outside without hearing gunshots.

“Most farmers work every day of the week, but they try to spend more time with their families on Sundays and don’t what to be interrupted by people knocking on their doors at 6:30 in the morning seeking to hunt on their land on Sundays, or listen to gunshots ringing across their property,” said Mark O’Neill, a spokesman for the Farm Bureau.

He added that farmers, who allow people to hunt on their land the rest of the week, appreciate being able to go outside to hike or ride horse, snowmobiles or ATVs without having to worry about encountering hunters.

Joe Neville, executive director of the Keystone Trails Association, said while hiking groups sponsor activities during the week when they share the woods with hunters, there is still a need for the Sunday ban.

Those in a group are less likely to be confused with wildlife than individual hikers or trail runners, he said.

Neville said when he’s waiting for a group to come back from a hike, “I can hear people half a mile away. It’s like a herd of elephants.”

Sharing the woods with hunters can be a scary proposition, particularly for hikers who are alone.

“They feel safer” on Sunday, he said.

Neville added there are hikers in neighboring states who come to Pennsylvania on Sundays because they know there won’t be hunters in the woods.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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