August 27, 2019
Rep. Keith Gillespie, Chair, House Game & Fisheries Committee
Rep. William Kortz, Democratic Chair, House Game & Fisheries Committee
Dear Chairman Gillespie and Kortz:
Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, the state’s largest general farm organization, welcomes the opportunity to discuss our position on Sunday hunting, and we appreciate the committee giving this issue a full hearing. This is a passionate issue, and we feel it’s important to have a full vetting of opinions.
Pennsylvania Farm Bureau is opposed to Sunday hunting and Senate Bill 147 as it is currently written. Our organization’s stance on Sunday hunting is not based on the input or philosophical belief of our staff, or our appointed board of directors. The stances that our organization takes for and against Sunday hunting or any other issue is determined by our members—and our members alone. That makes us unique among most organizations. Our stances are developed through a robust grassroots process that is truly led by farmers at every step. Every member who makes his or her living through agriculture, whether on the farm or an agriculture related business, can play a role in our policy development process. We communicate frequently with our members on how they can take part and add their insight to the process.
Last November, our members at our Annual Meeting developed a policy that would allow Pennsylvania Farm Bureau to remain neutral on the issue of Sunday hunting, provided that certain criteria were meet. Those criteria include:
- Stronger trespassing laws.
- Limiting Sunday hunting to three days with the primary focus on antlerless deer.
- For those Sundays, anyone seeking to hunt on private property would need written landowner permission.
This is a significant shift in stance for Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, which has historically opposed Sunday hunting under any circumstances. However, this policy change was member-driven. This change was born in part through the frustration that farmers in parts of the state are having with an overabundance of deer. They viewed this change to as a way to potentially grow the number of deer harvested every year, and thereby reducing crop damage. In addition, some of our members expressed their opinion that restrictions on Sunday hunting was a restriction on private property rights. What emerged from the process was a compromise that members felt addressed their concerns over deer populations, problems with hunters trespassing and a desire to allow hunters to use their land on Sundays.
In December 2018, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau staff and volunteers held a meeting with both chairs of the Senate Game and Fisheries Committee to discuss our change in policy. At that meeting, Farm Bureau outlined the circumstances under which we could remain neutral on the issue of Sunday hunting.
Senate Bill 147, when it was introduced in early 2019, did not reflect our policy positions. We opposed the bill when it was voted on at the committee level, and communicated our concerns repeatedly to members of the Senate in the ensuing weeks. Every member of the Senate was made aware of the criteria where Farm Bureau could be neutral, including the need for hunting on private property with written permission. After months of debate, SB 147 was significantly amended to limit Sunday hunting to only three days. We acknowledge that Senate members moved the bill closer to where Farm Bureau can be neutral. However, in order for us to take that stance, we would need SB 147 to be further amended to address hunting on private property with written permission for the Sundays designated for hunting. If that change is made to SB 147, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau will remain neutral on the bill.
For responsible hunters, none of the provisions called for in Senate Bill 147, or a requirement for written permission, should be problematic. For hunters who abide by private property boundaries, the increased penalties for trespassing will have no impact on them. In addition, we believe that requiring written permission will protect both the landowner and the hunter. A hunter who carries with them written permission from a landowner into the field will have easy proof to show to a Game Warden or other law enforcement officer that might question them. Abiding by private property boundaries, and obtaining written permission from landowners, is good practice and are common-sense principals that any responsible hunter should follow. It’s worth noting that 20 other states require hunters to carry written permission with them when hunting, including Ohio and Maryland.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission encourages hunters to practice written permission. Attached to this testimony is an addendum that includes a written permission card printed by the Game Commission in its online hunter digest. Also included is a similar permission card offered by the Ohio Division of Wildlife. This is not a new concept, so it’s not a stretch to ask the hunting community in Pennsylvania to abide by similar standards.
Farmers frustration with Sunday hunting centers on the issue of trespassing, and our long tradition of giving landowners a one-day a week break from hunting pressure. Farmers by in large welcome hunting on their property. But a number of our members have through the years experienced significant problems with hunters trespassing on their land and failing to ask for permission to be there. Tree stands and trail cameras have been placed on private property—again without permission—and gates have been left open and crops damaged.
Why is trespassing such an issue in Pennsylvania? One contributing factor is our hunter density numbers. We have the largest number of licensed hunters per square mile than any other state. Added to that fact is that most hunting in Pennsylvania takes place on private property. That creates a scenario where hunters can unknowingly, or intentionally, wander on to private property. This is equally problematic during deer hunting, as farm ground is often prime whitetail habitat. While Sunday hunting has religious origins, it’s grown into a longstanding tradition in Pennsylvania. Our landowners have grown to appreciate that they can have one day to themselves without feeling like they must police their property.
Our hunting related trespassing laws are notoriously weak. They do not provide an effective deterrent to hunters who willfully trespass on private property. Pennsylvania Farm Bureau has long advocated for stronger trespassing laws that can be enforced by Game Wardens and would prove as a significant deterrent for hunters to violate the law. We appreciative that Senate Bill 147 would make our trespassing laws stronger. This issue should have been addressed long ago, and should SB 147 fail, we will continue to push for stronger trespassing laws. We believe that addressing trespassing will go a long way to easing landowners concerns over Sunday hunting.
In the debate over Sunday hunting, we have heard time and again from hunters saying that landowners can simply “post their land,” as if that one act will in and of itself make trespassing disappear. Much like a posted speed limit sign without vigorous law enforcement, a no-trespassing sign might just be viewed as a suggestion—not a warning. By in large, our state’s hunting community abides by the spirit of private property rights. However, all it takes is one bad experience to make a landowner close their property down to the public. That frustration is equally compounded if a law enforcement officer is not available to enforce the law. When Pennsylvania eventually adopts stronger trespassing laws, we are calling on our Game Wardens and other law enforcement officers to vigorously enforce them. Hunters who willfully violate the law need to know that there are consequences to those actions. Steps like this will go a long way to improving landowner relations.
We also believe that the state needs to make it easier for landowners to post their property—if they so choose—by adopting so called “purple paint” laws. Purple paint laws allow landowners to mark their property boundaries with purple paint stripes on trees and fence posts. Those markings have the same legal implications as traditional “No Trespassing signs,” and would carry the same weight for violating our state’s trespassing laws. Similar laws are on the books in Texas, Indiana and West Virginia, and have proven popular with landowners. First, it makes it easier for landowners to maintain their boundaries and convey to others that their land is private. Secondly, it’s nearly impossible for a trespasser to deface these types of signs. It should provide our law enforcement officers with another tool to help them prosecute hunters and others who are on private property without permission. State Rep. Dawn Keefer has introduced House Bill 1772 and we believe this piece of legislation should be part of any conversation about strengthening hunting related trespassing.
Traditions change slowly. We often hear of how every state surrounding Pennsylvania offers Sunday hunting. While that is true, it’s worth noting that every one of our neighbors took a slow and measured approach to approving Sunday hunting. States like New York opened Sunday hunting on a regional basis, while Ohio started allowing limited Sunday hunting on public land, and on private property with more than 20 contiguous acres. West Virginia and Maryland opened Sunday hunting on a county-by-county basis. Senate Bill 147—should it become law—represents a similar measured approach to allowing Sunday hunting.
What is notable about those states is that even with Sunday hunting, they continue to see declines in hunter numbers. Some that are pushing for Sunday hunting argue that it will drive hunter participation. However, those facts do not bear out based on the experiences in surrounding states. Hunter recruitment and retention in Pennsylvania cannot simply focus on Sunday hunting.
To summarize, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau is opposed to Senate Bill 147 in its current form. That is based on the set of policy criteria that our members have established on the issue of Sunday hunting. However, should the bill be amended to include provisions for written permission on Sundays, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau will be neutral on the bill.
Thank you for your consideration on this important issue.
Director, State Government Affairs
Pennsylvania Game Commission hunter permission slip, available through Game Commission’s online 2019-2020 Hunter/Trapper Digest
Ask Permission Before Entering Private Property.
The Recreational Use of Land and Water Act provides liability protection to landowners who allow recreational use (hunting, fishing, swimming and hiking) on their unimproved property to the public without a fee.
Oho Division of Wildlife Hunting/Trapping permission slip.