Lawsuit over ‘right to food’ could end Maine’s Sunday hunting ban

Does the “right to food” replace the ban on hunting on Sundays?

That is the central question of a new lawsuit filed in Maine last month. The plaintiffs, a husband and wife with four children, claim that the state’s ban against Sunday hunting violates their “natural, inherent and inalienable right to food,” as written in the state’s recently approved constitutional amendment.

“Maine’s ban on hunting on Sundays is a historical and religious anachronism,” the lawsuit adds.

Eleven states still restrict Sunday hunting in some way, but many of those bans are being rolled back. Maine and Massachusetts are the only states with year-round statewide bans. This year, Virginia lawmakers struck down the state’s Sunday hunting ban on public lands, and Pennsylvania is in the process of allowing hunting every Sunday.

If this lawsuit is successful, it would be the first victory of its kind for hunting rights in the United States. Maine is the only state to pass a “right to food” constitutional amendment, but the strategy could provide a model for other states looking to expand and ensure hunter access every day of the week.

Hunting in Maine
To understand the lawsuit’s argument, it is important to understand how hunters have traditionally accessed land in the Pine Tree State. About 95% of the land in Maine is private, but state law allows hunters access to private parcels as long as the land is free of “No Trespassing” signs and the owner has not personally prohibited hunters from entering the land. the property.

Hunters generally apply for permission anyway, but that permissive culture is part of the reason Maine is one of the latest states to repeal its Sunday hunting ban. A small but vocal group of landowners support the ban because they want at least one day a week when they don’t have to think about hunters on their property.

This year, the state legislature considered a bill that would have repealed the ban. A Maine landowner told the committee that he and his family enjoy walking his property on Sundays.

“They just want to know that if they climb the mountain on Sunday they won’t get shot,” he said.

That bill would have allowed landowners to ban hunting. An amended version of the bill would have allowed Sunday hunting only for landowners and those given express permission by them. Even with these provisions, the Interior Fish and Wildlife Committee voted 8-3 against the measure.

Jared Bornstein has been organizing the lawsuit as executive director of Maine Hunters United for Sunday Hunting. He is also a lobbyist in the state legislature.

“The honest truth about the Sunday hunt in the legislature … most of them don’t care that much, and they don’t want to take a controversial stand on something they don’t really care about,” Bornstein explained. “The people who do care … have not been able to overcome that apathy.”

Others argue that allowing hunting on Sunday will prompt more property owners to ban hunting on their property. This will undoubtedly occur under certain circumstances, but a recent survey by the Maine Inland Fish and Wildlife Department (IFW) shows that 64% of landowners who “always” allow access would continue to allow the same level of access if hunting is allowed on Sundays

In fact, 10% of that group would be plus likely to allow access if Sunday hunting ban is repealed. The largest percentage of owners (68%) who say they are most likely to restrict access say they “rarely” grant access as it is.

the demand
Giving landowners the authority to ban hunting on Sundays hasn’t been enough to overturn the ban, so now hunters are going from the legislature to the courts.

Last year, Maine voters adopted a “right to food” constitutional amendment by referendum. Here is the text of the amendment in its entirety:

“All people have the natural, inherent and inalienable right to save and exchange seeds and the right to grow, breed, harvest, produce and consume the food of their choice for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being. provided that an individual does not commit trespassing, theft, poaching, or other abuse of private property rights, public lands, or natural resources in the harvesting, production, or procurement of food.”

Bornstein said the amendment began life as a hunting and fishing right provision similar to those passed in other states. It was expanded to ensure that hunting and fishing rights survived the rules and regulations imposed by the legislature. He does not specifically mention hunting and fishing because the authors did not want to limit their scope by listing individual activities.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit—a married couple named Joel and Virginia Parker—argue that the Sunday hunting ban violates this constitutional right because it does not provide enough time or opportunity to gather “the food of their own choosing,” that is, the wild game. . Joel Parker works five days a week, which only gives them one day a week to teach their four children to hunt or hunt together.

“In addition, due to the Sunday hunting ban, the Parkers are unable to plan an entire weekend hunt as a family in more remote areas of the state because they only have one day per weekend to hunt,” the lawsuit states.

In 2021, Maine’s whitetail rifle season was extended from October 30 to November 27, giving hunters who work weekdays just five days to fill out their tags.

The Parkers aren’t the only Maineans affected by the hunting ban. Maine hunters who spoke with MeatEater expressed similar frustration at not being able to hunt 50% of the days they don’t have to work.

“For most of us who have to work full time, the Sunday hunting ban severely limits our ability to feed our families,” said Kristine Thomas. She is often tasked with using her vacation time to take care of elderly relatives, so that option isn’t available to her either.

Even if adults can take vacation days during hunting season, John Meagher noted that children often don’t have that luxury. “The state has no problem offering reasonable lifetime hunting and fishing licenses at a reduced cost to kids, but a lot of kids who played sports, like mine, played fall football or baseball every Saturday,” he said. . Meagher’s son is now 23 years old and didn’t get a chance to grow up by going out into the woods.

Nick Cummings takes the perspective of the landowner. “I own land on which I pay taxes. I hunt my land when I want, but on Sundays I can’t. Why shouldn’t I be able to do as I please with my own land every day of the week? he asked him.

The lawsuit notes that landowners could still ban hunting on their property just as they do today. They could, for example, restrict hunting on Sundays but allow it on any other day of the week.

Additionally, allowing hunting on Sundays would not threaten wildlife populations. Jim Connolly, director of resource management for the Maine Interior Department of Fish and Wildlife, told a joint legislative committee that Sunday hunting is a “social issue, not a biological discussion.” Other state wildlife officials whose states have repealed Sunday hunting bans have not documented increases in harvest due to the change.

“Not hunting on Sundays is not a biological necessity,” Bornstein said. Maine is not meeting its deer or bear quotas, so adding another hunting day would not threaten game populations regulated by the state. “You should be able to hunt when you want to hunt, as long as you stick to the season dates and bag limits,” he concluded.

Land-owning allies?
It’s important to note that not all Maine hunters support changing the status quo. Twenty-two percent of hunters moderately (6%) or strongly (16%) oppose allowing hunting on Sundays during established hunting seasons, according to the Maine IFW. While the majority of property owners would continue to allow hunting on their property, about a third say they would restrict access to hunting. For hunters who depend on these plots, victory in Sunday’s hunting campaign could mean limiting their own access.

In a state with such a high percentage of privately owned land, it is critical that landowners not become the bad guys in this debate.

“Over 90% of Maine is privately owned and without the support and generosity of our private property owners, our outdoor recreational opportunities would be severely limited,” Connolly told the legislature.

Sunday hunting bans are likely going away. But as with other land access issues, hunters can’t afford to alienate the people they depend on for access to the wild places they love to hunt.

The lawsuit was filed in Maine Superior Court and is supported by Maine Hunters United for Sunday Hunting and Hunter Nation. Bornstein hopes the state attorney general will respond to the lawsuit soon.