Maine and Massachusetts are the last states to keep bans on Sunday hunting. That might soon change

Nov 18, 2023, 10:03 PM

A whitetail doe and her fawn keep an eye out from a field, in this June 14, 2023, file photo in Fre...

A whitetail doe and her fawn keep an eye out from a field, in this June 14, 2023, file photo in Freeport, Maine. The state, which bans bug game hunting on Sundays, has been attempting to control the deer population in areas of southern and central Maine through changes to the antlerless deer permit system. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Some states are steadily chipping away at longstanding bans on Sunday hunting, and there’s a push to overturn the laws in Maine and Massachusetts, the final two states with full bans.

Maine’s highest court is considering a lawsuit asking whether the state’s 19th century law, which prevents hunting big game animals such as deer, moose and turkeys on Sundays, is still necessary. In Massachusetts, where hunters are also lobbying for Sunday hunting rights, there is a renewed effort to change state laws forbidding the practice.

Forty states have no prohibitions on hunting on Sundays.

The bans stem from so-called “blue laws” that also regulate which businesses can remain open and where alcohol can be sold on Sundays.

Animal welfare groups, conservation organizations and others are rallying to defend the prohibitions, but the end of the laws might be in sight. Other states such as Virginia and South Carolina have in recent years rolled back what remains of their own limitations on the Sunday hunt.

Residents of states where hunting is part of the culture are divided on the subject. Some hunters argue the laws protect private landowner rights, while others say the rules take away hunting opportunities — or are just plain silly.

Sportsmen who oppose the laws see them as a vestige of the blue laws dating to the 17th century and limiting what activities citizens can engage in on a day governments once dedicated to prayer.

Jared Bornstein, executive director of Maine Hunters United for Sunday Hunting, said allowing seven-day-a-week hunting would allow people the opportunity to harvest their own food in a state with many poor, rural communities that cannot afford soaring grocery costs.

“I’m not saying that Sunday hunting is going to save the world economically, but I’m saying for a group of people, there’s more of an objective benefit to it,” Bornstein said. “It’s a generation’s last vestigial attempt to control the working class.”

The states that still have full or partial bans on Sunday hunting are all on the East Coast, where every fall sportsmen pursue wild turkeys and white-tailed deer with firearms and archery.

Last year, South Carolina opened limited hunting on public lands on Sundays, and the year before that Virginia made a similar move.

A few years prior North Carolina began to allow Sunday hunting on some 75% of its public hunting land, according to the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. Laws were also loosened in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware in the past five years.

Maine’s ongoing court case, which could legalize Sunday hunting, concerns a couple who filed a lawsuit stating the “right to food” amendment in the state’s Constitution, the first of its kind in the U.S., should allow them to hunt on any day of the week. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has heard arguments in the case, but it’s unclear when it will rule, said Andy Schmidt, an attorney for the couple. The state first banned Sunday hunting in 1883.

In Massachusetts, where some sources date the ban all the way back to the Puritan era, a campaign to repeal it made progress before stalling in the state Legislature in 2014. Some are continuing to try to strike the law, which is “discriminating against hunters,” said John Kellstrand, president of the Mass Sportsmen’s Council. A new proposal to authorize Sunday hunting via bow and arrows was introduced earlier this year.

The efforts to roll back Sunday hunting up and down the East Coast face opposition from a broad range of interest groups, including animal protection advocates, state wildlife management authorities and private landowners.

Maine Woodland Owners, a group representing rural landowners in the most forested state in the country, sees the Sunday hunting ban as critical to keeping private lands open for hunting access on the other days of the week, Executive Director Tom Doak said.

“We’re not asking for money. We’re not saying pay us. We’re not asking for anything but to be left alone one day a week,” Doak said. “They will close their lands. They absolutely will do that.”

Sportsmen’s groups, including the National Rifle Association and Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, have long lobbied to overturn Sunday hunting restrictions, and have had much success over the past 30 years. In that time, states including New York, Ohio and Connecticut have loosened Sunday hunting laws.

Lifting bans has created hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in economic activity, said Fred Bird, assistant manager for the northeastern states for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. Getting rid of what’s left of these laws would remove “a regulation that has no basis in wildlife management,” Bird said.

“Simply put, if hunters do not have available days to go afield, they must decide whether their time, energy, and financial resources should continue to be allocated to a pursuit they are unable to fully participate in,” he said.

Wildlife managers in states with Sunday hunting have sometimes pushed back at efforts to overturn the bans. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife testified against a proposal earlier this year that would have allowed Sunday hunting with a bow and arrow or a crossbow.

Agricultural, land owner and conservation groups also came out against the proposal, which had support from the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation and some hunters in the state. The Maine Farm Bureau Association testified it’s important for land owners to have “one day of rest without disruption.”

The proposal was ultimately voted down in committee. However, the odds of a similar proposal coming before the Maine Legislature again seem high, testified Judy Camuso, commissioner of the wildlife department.

“The topic of Sunday hunting has been a heated social debate for years,” she said.

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Maine and Massachusetts are the last states to keep bans on Sunday hunting. That might soon change