A measure that has historically received little support in the Massachusetts Legislature — softening the state’s Colonial-era ban against hunting on Sundays — passed the House this month and has environmental advocates worried they will lose their only days to enjoy the woods in the autumn free of hunters.
The legislation would allow the state fisheries and wildlife director to permit deer hunting with a bow and arrow on Sundays from October through December, roughly during the archery season, which hits about the same time as peak foliage. It is another spark in the endless debate between groups of people who often share a love of nature but have very different visions for how humans should treat the environment.
Proponents of the bill say the prohibition on Sunday hunting is unfair and anachronistic. A lift of the ban, they argue, would help cull a burgeoning deer population that is rapidly encroaching on suburban areas.
“Sportsmen have done more to control habitat and land than any other group, and yet we’re the only one with restrictions to its use,” said Representative Matthew A. Beaton, a Shrewsbury Republican who is among the bill’s strongest advocates.
Opponents say some nature enthusiasts plan outings for Sundays so they can avoid hunters.
“We believe that at least one day a week should be left for people to hike, bird-watch, [and] engage in nature photography in the woods,” said Jack Clarke, director of public policy and government relations for the Massachusetts Audubon Society.
Last year, 4,486 white-tailed deer, just less than 39 percent of the total taken during open season, were killed during weeks when archery was permitted, according to state records.
The Sunday hunting prohibition is a relic of puritanical rule, “part of the so-called blue laws that were established back in Colonial times,” said Wayne F. MacCallum, director of the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. In New England, Maine and Connecticut maintain similar restrictions, he said. (The Connecticut House of Representatives last month approved a bill that would permit bow hunting on Sundays on private property.)
Hunting-free Sundays allow people to enjoy nature without fear of coming into contact with an archer’s arrow or seeing an injured animal or blood trail, said Kara Holmquist, director of advocacy for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“It’s not all just fear of public safety, people don’t want to come in contact with the hunting activity,” she said.
Beaton, a bow hunter himself, said there is little evidence to support such concerns. He said before he begins hunting he hikes deep into the woods, far away from more public places. Archers, he said, are highly trained and generally sit in tree stands “for six hours and wait for a deer to pass by, so it’s a much more passive sport” than hunting with a gun.
It is “extremely uncommon” for archers to hurt non-archers in the woods, said Amy Mahler, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Environmental Police.
Representative Paul K. Frost, a Republican from Auburn and cosponsor of the bill, said partially repealing the Sunday hunting ban is important for public safety and health. An overpopulation of deer, he said, increases risks for car crashes and Lyme disease.
“I think that it’s going to benefit everybody, really,” Frost said. “Even if you’re pro-wildlife and everything else, having an overpopulation is not good for the environment.”
Holmquist expressed doubt that a handful of new days for bow hunting would significantly reduce the deer population statewide.
The Division of Fisheries and Wildlife estimates that between 85,000 and 95,000 deer roam the Commonwealth. MacCallum said two-thirds of the state has a reasonably dense population of deer, but in the MetroWest region, prohibitions on any kind of hunting in several towns have led to overpopulation.
Some argue that permitting bow hunting in Massachusetts on Sundays would carry an economic benefit by deterring hunters from going to states such as New Hampshire and New York, where Sunday hunting is allowed. Frost said his bill could increase the amount of money spent on gear and licenses in the Bay State.
But Holmquist contends that allowing hunting on Sundays would bring an offsetting loss in revenue from the bird-watchers and hikers who would go over the border.
The bill is awaiting action in the Senate. It has been referred to the committee on Senate Ethics and Rules.Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at zachary.sampson@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZackSampson.