July 30, 2021
There’s no question that trail cameras have revolutionized hunting across North America during the 21st century. The technological push of these devices has been fascinating to watch as increasing megapixels, lightning-quick trigger speeds, better nighttime capabilities, longer-lasting power supplies, and even high-definition video have helped hunters gain a better understanding of the game roaming their properties. Most notable in recent years, however, has been the increasing presence of cellular trail cameras that can transmit photos, video and other data to hunters in real-time fashion.
Obviously, such trail cameras bring advantages, most notably allowing hunters to quietly spy on their local woods without leaving behind scent, making noise or spooking a giant buck into the next county. But while many hunters have embraced cellular cameras, their use is illegal in some places and not always readily accepted in other areas.
That includes the hallways of the Boone and Crockett Club and the Pope and Young Club, two organizations that hunters often think of when they take an impressive buck or bull that might qualify for the record book. However, the issue of cellular cameras goes beyond big-game records. As Kyle Lehr, assistant director of big-game records for Boone and Crockett, points out, the organizations’ functions include championing the Rules of Fair Chase that were adopted a century ago as forward-thinking conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt and others tried to save declining wildlife populations.
What is Fair-Chase hunting?
Boone and Crockett (B&C) defines it as “the ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging wild game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper or unfair advantage over the game animals.”
It’s those last few words that bring the use of cellular trail cameras into question. Do these devices give a hunter an improper advantage in the woods?
“Basically, any type of technology that transmits a real-time response to hunters, that disqualifies an animal from being entered into the B&C record-keeping system,” says Lehr.
As Lehr notes, it’s not that B&C is outright opposed to technological advances. The organization’s stance stems from the ways, or extent, hunters choose to use technology. In essence, technology should not become an unfair or unethical substitute for hunting skill.
“Our technological advantages have the capability to overwhelm wildlife resources and eliminate something very special to hunting—the challenge and when the outcome is not guaranteed,” B&C states on its website. “B&C is in support of technological advances in hunting equipment and techniques as long as these tools do not undermine a positive public image of hunting and diminish the skills necessary to be a fair and responsible hunter, or set a bad example for young hunters.”
Keep in mind the same concept exists in other ways across North America. For example, Alaska prohibits flying and hunting on the same day since such practice could unfairly tip the odds in favor of the hunter. According to Lehr, similar reasoning is in play regarding cellular cameras.
“What we’re talking about here is that it isn’t Fair Chase to be hanging out at your house, get a trail-camera photo transmitted to you in real time, and then head down to your stand to try to kill the animal,” he explains.
With that being said, B&C and Pope and Young (P&Y) recognize the ongoing progression of technology. The clubs issued a statement in 2020 that cleaned up old wording and clarified their positions on the topic moving forward.
“The old wording was such that if you got a picture of a deer as a yearling and then shot it a few years later as a mature buck, then technically, it wasn’t eligible for entry under our Fair Chase rules,” says Lehr. “So, we recognized that, recognized the expanding role of technology, and worked with Pope and Young to come up with something that is reasonable.”
Pope and Young representative Roy Grace echoed that idea in a club news release issued during the summer of 2020. It came after both clubs fielded numerous phone calls and e-mails concerning the use of cellular trail cameras and other transmitting technology.
“The Pope and Young Records Committee, with assistance from the Boone and Crockett Records Committee, jointly created a policy that should provide hunters with a greater understanding of how this technology can be used in a manner that still provides Fair Chase,” noted Grace in the release.
Keep in mind that P&Y stated it had not historically considered trail cameras, or even transmitting trail cameras, an automatic disqualification that would knock a potential record-book animal out of consideration. But how that data was used by hunters certainly could do so.
“For clarification, receiving a wireless image (photo, video, GPS coordinate, etc.), which elicits an immediate (real-time) response, guiding the hunter to the animal, would be considered a violation of the Rules of Fair Chase,” noted P&Y’s news release. “This would prohibit that animal from being eligible for entry into the Pope and Young Club’s Records Program.”
Lehr admits this can be a confusing topic. He acknowledges that in some cases, the decision to accept a big-game animal could come down to a decision by the B&C Records Committee. But he also notes that the fundamental question remains the same, whether applied to straightforward cases or those that are somewhat ambiguous.
“And that question is whether or not the technology was the primary reason that the animal was taken by the hunter and was harvested,” says Lehr. “You’ve got to ask yourself whether an animal was taken in Fair Chase, because that’s the fundamental backbone of hunting for B&C, P&Y and conservationists across North America.”
While the use of cellular trail cameras is legal in many areas, regulations restrict their use on certain lands. Note that not every state allows for their use, especially in the western U.S. Here’s how some states currently look at the practice.
Arizona: Banned use of live-action cameras in 2018; followed that with a ban on all trail cameras in December 2020.
Montana: Banned trail cameras in 2010; later amended the regulation to apply only to cameras linked to cell phones.
Nevada: Banned use of all trail cameras on public lands at certain times of the year.
Utah: Gov. Spencer J. Cox signed HB0295 into law this spring, which instructs the Division of Wildlife Resources Wildlife Board to make rules and regulations for trail camera usage.