WAYNESVILLE – Several Sunday hunting meeting attendees said they had never seen mountain bikers or birders leaving state game lands in a body bag. They touted the relative safety of hunting. Others expressed the desire for all outdoor enthusiasts to have full use of public lands every day of the week.
These were some of the comments from 75 hunters and nonhunters at a North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission meeting Feb. 13 at the Regional High Technology Center in Haywood County, arranged to gauge public sentiment on whether to open state game lands to Sunday hunting.
This was the fourth of seven such meetings around the state in response to a 2019 online survey on Sunday hunting, in which the state wildlife agency received 31,000 responses, said Brett Boston, with the survey company Group Solutions.
“Whenever you have 31,000 people respond to anything, that’s big. This is a huge and statistically awesome sample size,” said Boston, who facilitated the meeting and gave initial results from the survey.
He said while responses came from “across the globe,” demonstrating the well-known outdoor recreation opportunities in Western North Carolina and the rest of the state, most respondents were from North Carolina.
Boston said it will be awhile before he can crunch through all the responses from the online survey, which closed Feb. 2 and yielded 15,000, single-spaced pages of comments.
The 15-question, optionally anonymous survey featured questions such as how many times people use game lands, which ones they use, do they hunt, do they support or oppose Sunday hunting on game lands and why?
Some preliminary results showed that most respondents were male — 86% male. More than 80% of survey takers were hunters, and about half said they hunt on game lands.
Boston said the average age of respondents was 53.7 years old. The good news, he said, was that hunters and nonhunters were avid users of state game lands. Hunters averaged 22 days of use a year and nonhunters 20 days, with a wide range of activities from falconry, rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking and bird watching.
For hunters who used game lands for activities other than hunting, their top three activities were fishing, hiking and camping. For nonhunters, the top three were hiking, bird watching and biking.
The agency took a similar survey in 2018, which garnered just over 6,000 responses, said Brian McRae, chief of the land and water access section for WRC. In the 2019 survey, the agency reached out to many more user groups, everyone on their email lists and pushed the message through social media.
What are current Sunday hunting rules?
Sunday hunting is already allowed on private lands in North Carolina, McRae said. It was established with the passage of the Outdoor Heritage Act of 2015, which removed the absolute prohibition on hunting with firearms on Sunday in North Carolina that had been in place since 1868.
In 2017, the Wildlife Commission received authority from the General Assembly to allow hunting on public lands through the Outdoor Heritage Enhanced Act.
McRae said the commission has been gathering data and public input since then to put rules into place governing Sunday hunting on game lands. The same restrictions apply on public lands as on private lands: hunting with a firearm between 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., hunting deer with the use of dogs, and hunting within 500 yards of a place of worship are all prohibited.
What survey, audience members said
During the two-hour meeting, audience members were asked more questions, and were able to immediately respond with automated voting devices.
One question asked attendees if they supported designating different game lands for different uses; it drew an overwhelming “strongly disagree” of 74% from the audience.
“I don’t think you should limit anybody’s opportunities,” said David Joy, a hunter from Tuckasegee.
“If this question was asking whether people should be allowed to ride horses all week, my answer would be ‘hell yeah, they ought to be able to do anything they want on those lands,’ I love seeing hikers … I love seeing people listening to grouse. This entire thing is about limiting a single user.”
Many in attendance seemed to agree about not limiting days of the week to anyone.
Adrienne Paoletta, 39, a deer and turkey hunter from Haywood County, said she came to the meeting hoping to hear that people are more concerned about the quality and number of wildlife on game lands, and the wish to do more to enhance wildlife habitat.
As far as opening Sunday to hunting, she was in favor of it.
“Anything that’s going to help people, especially working people, give them any option to be able to hunt, I support. I was encouraged that a lot of people support Sunday hunting,” she said after the meeting.
The preliminary survey results showed that most hunters, or 74%, were in favor of Sunday hunting because the practice works on private land, hunters have to pay for maintenance of game lands via licenses, there’s no legal reason to restrict it, it removes barriers to hunters who only have the weekends to hunt, and it reduces Saturday overcrowding, plus other reasons.
For hunters opposed to Sunday hunting, the main reasons were religious beliefs and long-standing tradition.
About 22% of nonhunters supported Sunday hunting for reasons including that they wouldn’t want their rights to hike or bike restricted, they believe it allows more outdoor opportunities for those who work on Saturday, and the separation of church and state – they consider a Sunday hunting ban an outdated blue law.
Those nonhunters who oppose Sunday hunting cited safety as the No. 1 issue.
“They said, ‘I don’t want to have to worry about myself, my dog or my horse being shot one day a week,” Boston said of the survey result.
Mark Rogers, a hunting safety instructor from Haywood County said he believed the safety concerns were unfounded.
“I don’t think there will be a massive die off of birders and people coming out of the woods in body bags if we allow Sunday hunting,” said Rogers, who cited statistics saying volleyball, snowboarding and golf were all more dangerous sports than hunting.
“The leading cause of hunting accidents is falls from tree stands,” Rogers said. He added more people in WNC die from falling off or drowning in waterfall pools than in hunting accidents each year.
According to the Wildlife Commission’s Law Enforcement Division, there were 17 hunting-related accidents in North Carolina during the 2018-19 hunting season. There were two fatalities, both of which were from tree stand falls, the most common cause of hunting-related accidents. The fatalities occurred in Anson and Stokes counties.
There was one waterfall-related death in WNC in 2019, at Big Bradley Falls in Polk County. However, there were six waterfall-related deaths the previous year.
McRae said the meetings so far “have been productive. We are enjoying the conversation and hearing opinions.”
He said the Haywood County meeting, which covered District 9, or the westernmost district in the state, had the biggest turnout by far. At the District 8 meeting the week prior in Morganton, 45 people turned out.
“We’re definitely hearing that this is a very strong opinion that this is a right to hunt on Sunday and we should not be restricting that at all,” he said.
The commission has added two more “virtual meetings” to its lineup.
Where can you hike, hunt and bird watch without hunting pressure?
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission manages more than 2 million acres of public game land. These include areas with “game land” in their names such as Sandy Mush in Buncombe County, Green River in Polk and Henderson counties, and William H. Silver in Haywood County, that are owned by the wildlife commission.
It also includes state forests, including DuPont State Recreational Forest and Headwaters State Forest, which are owned by the N.C. Forest Service.
The largest and most heavily used public game lands are the more than 1 million acres of U.S. Forest Service land. In WNC, these are the Nantahala National Forests and the Pisgah National Forest — the most heavily used game land, according to the survey.
Pisgah includes the popular areas of the Davidson River Corridor and Bent Creek Experimental Forest near Asheville. While Bent Creek has become known as a popular recreation site, especially for hikers and mountain bikers, it is also open to hunting. The only exceptions are bear hunting because it is a bear sanctuary, and hunting in the Lake Powhatan area.
What lands are off-limits?
So where can you go bird watching or hiking during hunting season without the presence of hunters? All state and national parks are off limits to hunting. This includes Chimney Rock, Gorges, Grandfather Mountain, Lake James and Mount Mitchell state parks.
Hunting is prohibited in the entire half-million acres of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as well as on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The parkway, however, shares close boundaries with U.S. Forest Service land, so check ahead before heading out.
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McRae also recommends everyone wear blaze orange or bright colors during hunting seasons. Hunters are required to do so, but it adds a layer of safety to everyone.
After the seven public meetings and two virtual meetings, McRae said there will be focus group meetings to refine ideas or options, with major partners including the Audubon Society, the Wild Turkey Federation, the N.C. Horse Council, Wildlife Federation, and others.
A final report will be developed and delivered to the commissioners, who will make a decision.
“If their decision relates to something having to do with Sunday hunting, that rule change will go through the same process of public hearings and a comment period,” McRae said. “If something is passed, it will be implemented in August of 2021.”
Want to attend a meeting?
Those who are unable to attend one of the in-person public input meetings on Sunday hunting will be able to give their feedback during two online virtual meetings. A computer or smart phone is needed to participate. Log on by 7 p.m.
The first online virtual meeting will be Feb. 17 at zoom.us/j/340876917.
The second online virtual meeting will Feb. 20 at zoom.us/j/623274594.
Karen Chávez is an award-winning outdoors and environment reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times and USA TODAY Network. She is the author of “Best Hikes with Dogs: North Carolina,” and is a former National Park Service ranger.
Reach me: KChavez@CitizenTimes.com or on Twitter @KarenChavezACT
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