RALEIGH — North Carolina sportsmen eager to hunt on public game lands on Sunday may have to wait at least another two years before a 150-year prohibition is lifted.
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the public agency with the authority to open hunting on public land, is weighing the decision to lift the ban.
Commissioners and members of the WRC’s Land Use and Access Committee met July 17 to discuss the topic and confirm a strategy to gather public input before making a decision to open game lands to Sunday hunting or to continue the restriction.
Last February, Brian McRae, the land and water access section chief of the WRC, told Carolina Public Press that the agency would conduct four to six public listening sessions in the spring across the state and form a stakeholders group to weigh in on concerns and opportunities presented by opening hunting on Sunday in time for the 2020 hunting season.
However, those public sessions have yet to take place. The delay, McRae said, was in part due to a sense of unease among some WRC commissioners.
In all, the WRC has 19 commissioners appointed by the governor or the North Carolina legislature, each serving terms of two to six years. “We want to get their buy-in and support for whatever direction we go with this,” McRae said.
In 2010, the WRC opened Sunday hunting with archery equipment on private land. In 2015, the Outdoor Heritage Act lifted the ban on Sunday hunting with firearms on private land. A revision in 2017 removed several exceptions and transferred the regulatory authority of Sunday hunting on public lands from the General Assembly to the WRC.
In all, the state agency regulates wildlife and habitat on 2 million acres of land owned by the WRC and other state agencies, as well as tracts of game land owned by land trusts and the federal government for public hunting, trapping and inland fishing.
The rule change, if enacted, would not impact state or federal public holdings that are not game lands.
Gauging public opinion
To gauge the public’s opinion about opening Sunday hunting on public game land, McRae and WRC staff are advocating a broad public outreach to gather feedback.
At the July 17 meeting, commissioners provided their support to hiring a third-party facilitator to oversee the public meetings.
The WRC enacts rules to regulate hunting and conducts public meetings to gather input as part of its rule-making process. The meetings to discuss Sunday hunting will be in addition to annual public hearings held in the state’s nine wildlife districts each January.
“We want to take a second look at who uses our state’s game lands,” said Commissioner Monty Crump. He chaired an ad hoc committee of WRC staff and commissioners that met in June to discuss Sunday hunting.
“We have a responsibility to engage as many people and stakeholders as possible.”
Crump, who was appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper and is also the city manager of Rockingham, said he was waiting to review the results of the public meetings before he chooses a position.
Hunters and conservation
John Culclasure of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation supports a public process, but he’s concerned that it may lead to conflict among user groups. His organization advocates opening Sunday hunting throughout the nation.
“Game lands are purchased in large part and managed mostly with hunter-generated dollars, and it makes sense that hunters should have access to these lands seven days a week like everyone else,” he said.
But Culclasure said, “There are bigger issues to tackle, and instead of fighting over access to lands that we all collectively own, we could be working together to make real strides for wildlife conservation.”
In 2018, North Carolina received $18 million in funds through an 11 percent federal excise tax on arms and ammunition used for wildlife restoration and habitat management that is mandated by the Pittman-Robertson Act.
According to a survey conducted in 2018, users of North Carolina game lands are split. The opinion survey was opened for several weeks last July and August to gauge the public’s opinion surrounding the issue.
The survey targeted and requested information on 61 game lands in North Carolina regarding interest in Sunday hunting. Of the 5,885 people who responded, 53.2 percent were in favor of Sunday hunting on public land, and 46.8 percent opposed the idea.
Opponents of opening Sunday hunting, however, said the survey did not reflect the concerns of a broader population of North Carolinians.
McRae said the agency used various channels to share the survey, such as using social media platforms, reaching out to user groups, posting at outdoor gear and sports stores, and email blasts.
“We tried to get this information out as best we could,” McRae told CPP in February 2018.
“We recognize that the survey didn’t guarantee a representative sample of our users and was not scientific. It was intended to gauge public opinion.”
The survey did reveal that opening Sunday hunting on public land is a divided topic. According to the survey, respondents opposed to Sunday hunting cited a range of concerns, including animal rights, religious beliefs, safety concerns and potential conflicts with other user groups.
Last October, the survey results were presented to the commissioners of the WRC. All future rule changes and regulations administered by the WRC are proposed and discussed in October. The presentation of the survey results in October coincided with a proposal to open Sunday hunting on 30 of the 61 game lands in North Carolina.
At the time, commissioners decided to table the decision to open hunting on any game lands.
At the July 17 meeting, McRae said the Sunday hunting ad hoc committee, chaired by Crump, presented to the commissioners a new timeline to gather public input. At the meeting, the commissioners pledged their support to follow the strategy.
McRae said the next step is to request bids from third-party contractors to facilitate the public meetings throughout the state scheduled to be held between October and February.
“After that, we will have a good idea of what user groups and users think about Sunday hunting,” McRae said.
“The commissioners will have a full set of information to weigh on this pretty contentious issue. We want every group and person with an interest or concern to weigh in. We think public meetings will give them an opportunity to do that.”
If the commissioners recommend a rule change, Sunday hunting may be open on some games lands by August 2021.