Controversial bill stirs political unease
AUGUSTA - When state legislators return to Augusta in January they will consider a controversial bill to create a limited Sunday hunt.
At a special session Wednesday, members of the Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife voted 8-5 for the bill sponsored by Rep. Monica McGlocklin, D-Embden, to allow Sunday hunting for small game on 3.5 million acres of commercial forestland in northwestern Maine that is managed for recreation by North Maine Woods.
The committee sent the bill forward, despite some committee members' concerns about political fallout.
"Hunters are the new minority," said Rep. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, who voted against the measure. "This will have a backlash that will affect all of us."
Supporters claim that the hunt would give another opportunity to people who work all week and can only hunt on Saturdays. It would also increase opportunities for weekend hunting getaways that might draw more tourists to Maine. Besides, McGlocklin said, the landowners who would be affected support the bill.
"We're not forcing anyone to open their land to Sunday hunting," McGlocklin said, noting that the area covered by her bill is "in the sticks."
However, if the experimental hunt - which would last only two years - is successful, the department would consider expanding the Sunday hunt and making it permanent, Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Roland "Dan" Martin said Wednesday.
That's exactly what the bill's detractors fear most.
"This bill is truly a foot in the door," Judith Merck, vice-president of the Small Woodlot Owners Association of Maine said Wednesday, raising questions about how the experimental hunt would be enforced.
Hunting advocates call the prohibition on Sunday hunting a "blue law," similar to ones that previously preventing shopping and liquor sales on Sundays before they were repealed. Countless versions of this bill have been proposed over the years, but most have died at the committee level and none has ever been approved by the full Legislature.
The Maine public just isn't ready for Sunday hunting, said Sen. David Carpenter, R-Springvale, who voted against the bill. Rep. James Tobin, R-Dexter, also voted against the bill because an informal survey of his constituents indicated that 80 percent were opposed to Sunday hunting, he said.
"Although I'd probably be the first person to take advantage of this, I have to vote no," Tobin, an avid rabbit hunter, said.
Others worried about the political ramifications of liberalizing hunting at a time when the committee is being criticized for its solidarity with hunters. More land could be posted with "no trespassing" signs, and the committee could lose the public trust, they said.
George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, has long supported Sunday hunting proposals, and urged committee members to consider McGlocklin's bill on its merits, not the political climate.
"I wouldn't want to give this up," Smith said. "That would be giving a victory to our opponents."
Small game is defined as partridge, rabbits, squirrels, woodcock and possibly migratory waterfowl such as ducks and geese. McGlocklin asked Wednesday if her fellow legislators would consider adding coyotes to the list of legal Sunday game, but none was willing to take on the contentious predator issue while the department is attempting to save its coyote snaring program with a federal permit to absolve the state of liability under the federal Endangered Species Act.
"We're in intense discussions," Martin said. "I do not want this particular issue to muddy the waters."
Committee members voting for the measure were: Sen. Bruce Bryant, D-Dixfield; Reps. McGlocklin; Matthew Dunlap, D-Old Town; Raymond Pineau, D-Jay; Thomas Watson, D-Bath; Walter Wheeler Sr., D-Kittery; Raymond Wotton, D-Littleton; and Earl Richardson, R-Greenville.
Voting against were: Sens. Carpenter and Richard Kneeland, R-Easton; Reps. Tobin, Trahan, and Ken Honey, R-Boothbay.
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