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Maryland's Sunday deer-hunting proposal could conflict with trail riders, other hunters

This foursome enjoys a good Sunday ride along one of several trails developed over the years in south county. From left are Nancy Carter, Liddy Chaney, Henry Lauderdale and Candyce Miller. Many riders and other recreational users of the trail system, such as birders and hikers, think a bill to allow Sunday hunting will make trail use unsafe.
This foursome enjoys a good Sunday ride along one of several trails developed over the years in south county. From left are Nancy Carter, Liddy Chaney, Henry Lauderdale and Candyce Miller. Many riders and other recreational users of the trail system, such as birders and hikers, think a bill to allow Sunday hunting will make trail use unsafe. (Courtesy photo , Capital Gazette)

So what's more important: Cutting the deer population or preserving "safe Sundays" for those who use the woods?

House Bill 197, introduced by Del. Bob Costa, R-Deale, could result in Sunday deer hunting in Anne Arundel County to further cull the growing population of white-tailed deer, who damage crops and are often hit by cars.

But in south county the hunting ban allowed another tradition to flourish - riding and fox hunting along the trails crossing scores of private properties from Jug Bay to West River. Leaders of the county and state horse industry are fighting HB 197 to hold on to what they call "safe Sundays."

"People know Sundays are safe for trail riding, fox hunting and other recreational uses in the woods," said Maryland Horse Council board member Steuart Pittman, who trains horses at his family's Dodon Farm in Davidsonville.

Costa's bill does not directly authorize hunting on Sundays. It is enabling legislation that calls on the state's Department of Natural Resources to determine the best approach to address the booming deer population.

Anne Arundel's General Assembly delegation put a hold on the bill on Friday morning during its weekly meeting. It is likely the bill will be amended to cut the maximum number of additional Sunday hunting days from about 15 to a handful. The state Department of Natural Resources asked that it be allowed to pick the Sundays if the delegation cuts the maximum number of days.

But the department's past actions indicate that if granted the power, it will OK Sunday hunting. The agency backs the bill, noting that a Sunday hunt would address requests for more hunting and provide a cost-effective way to manage the deer population.

"We can't look for a solution to manage deer and do away with (this) option," said Paul Peditto, director of DNR's wildlife service. This is the ultimate tool ... there is no other magic bullet."

If passed, the legislation could lead to hunting from the first Sunday in October through the second Sunday of January - some 15 Sundays considered to be best time of the year for trail and hunt riding.

"It's the prettiest time of year, it's cooler - all the bugs are gone," said Christy Clagett, a master of the Marlborough Hunt Club and owner of Larkin Hill Farm, another horse-training facility in Harwood in southern Anne Arundel County.

Clagett said she and others are not anti-hunting - far from it.

"I allow hunting on my property," she said. And it is also allowed, she said, by most of the landowners on whose properties the network of riding and hiking trails winds across fields, woods and property lines.

"We allow hunting, too," Pittman said. "We all have crop damage and other problems from the deer. We want deer hunting."

"But we also want to keep our safe Sundays," Clagett said, testifying before the House Environmental Matters Committee in Annapolis on Wednesday.

Costa said Pittman's comments about wanting deer hunting, in a conversation the two had recently, are "the perfect argument for the bill. The deer problem is getting dangerous."

Costa cited insurance industry statistics about vehicle claims involving damage by deer.

He also noted hunters need written permission to hunt on private property and property owners can stipulate hunters are welcome - except on Sundays. Peditto confirmed that.

Although the bill's opponents cite a safety issue, statistics indicate that no riders or nonhunters have been injured in Sunday hunting accidents.

But Claggett said that a shot fired on an adjoining property can spook a horse, potentially resulting in injury for both rider and mount.

The bill was due to be heard before the Senate Health, Education and Environmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday, but was pulled. Senate sponsor Ed Reilly, R-Crofton, said he did so at the request of county Senate delegation Chairman John Astle, D-Annapolis.

"We will let the House act," Reilly said. "If it passes there we will resurrect it over here."

The House Environmental Matters Committee heard testimony Wednesday, but did not vote.

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