Cellular-Linked Trail Camera Controversy

Cellular-Linked Trail Camera Controversy
Image Credit: Mitch Kezar

Where does technology cross the line and eliminate ethical fair-chase hunting? For a growing number of states, the latest answer is cellular-linked trail cameras that send images to phones and computers soon after they are taken. The Arizona Game and Fish Commission voted unanimously in June to ban the use of “live-action” cameras. Nevada also banned the use of all trail cameras on public land during certain times of the year. Nearly 90 percent of Nevada is public.

The new regulations address a number of issues, said Nevada Division of Wildlife Chief Game Warden Tyler Turnipseed. They prevent hunters from disturbing wildlife around limited water sources, and they remove any question of fair chase.

“A person can literally capture photos of every single big animal in an entire hunt unit here in Nevada,” said Turnipseed. “Some units have only six or eight water sources, and the animals don’t have a choice. They have to come to water. That means they have a much more difficult time avoiding detection.”

Mule Deer Foundation President and CEO Miles Moretti said his organization doesn’t have an official position on the bans, but he agreed trail cameras raise a number of issues in some situations.

“Water is pretty scarce in some of these western states,” said Moretti. “So when you have a bunch of people placing trail cameras next to a water source that sends an image almost instantly, it can be viewed as a fair chase issue.”

Water isn’t scarce in most parts of Montana, but Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) banned the use of all trail cameras during hunting season in 2010. They have since amended the ban to include only cellular-linked cameras. New Hampshire also restricted their use in 2015. Hunters can use them, but they are prohibited from hunting an animal on the same day the photos are taken. These are difficult laws to enforce, acknowledged MFWP Assistant Chief of Law Enforcement Ron Jendro.

“We would either have to have a tip or be working an existing case where we found out these cameras were part of the case,” said Jendro. “It is unlikely we could find these cameras otherwise if we tried. We just hope hunters will abide by the regulation. It’s mostly a fair chase issue, much like the use of drones or even smart rifles. We think it gives hunters an unfair advantage.”

At least a dozen states have banned or restricted the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, for hunting. Others have prohibited “smart” rifle technology that “virtually eliminates human error” and boasts of half-inch groups at distances of over a half-mile. The TrackingPoint system allows “hunters unable to dedicate the time and resources required to achieve such an elite level of skill” to “make dreams of a trophy kill a reality.”

However, Moultrie Game Cameras Marketing Manager Mark Olis questioned the notion that cellular game cameras offer a slam-dunk opportunity to kill an animal soon after its image is captured on camera.

“It’s not as simple as sitting around camp, getting a photo of an animal on your phone and then walking over the hill to shoot it,” said Olis. “Wild animals don’t stand still. Images can take minutes to transfer to a cell phone and considerably longer in areas with poor cell coverage, if they even transmit at all.”

His company did not actively oppose bans in Arizona or Nevada, but some hunters were disappointed with the restrictions. Moretti attended a couple of public hearings in Arizona where a handful of hunters spoke against the ban. Mostly though, hunters, including outfitter Steven Ward, were either supportive of the ban or indifferent. Ward uses regular trail cameras, but he doesn’t use cellular cameras.

“There aren’t many places I hunt that even have cell service,” said Ward. “I know a lot of guys who don’t use them for that same reason. Besides, they are expensive. I’d be afraid to have them stolen if I put them on public land.”

There was no organized opposition in Nevada, either, although some individuals did speak against the proposal at public hearings. The Nevada Outfitters and Guides Association (NOGA) ultimately chose not to take an official position “because our members were divided on it,” said NOGA Secretary Rachel Buzzetti, whose husband is an outfitter.

“Some guides said these cameras were important for their business and were pretty strongly opposed to any ban,” said Buzzetti. “Others said they don’t use them and didn’t think they were fair chase. There was a lot of discussion on this.”

No one knows for certain how many hunters use any type of trail camera, but one thing is clear: Their popularity has increased in recent years, especially around isolated water sources in arid western states. Buzzetti has heard of as many as 60 cameras on a single water source.

“I saw a photo of a bunch of cameras placed on stakes right at the water,” said Buzzetti. “Ranchers were complaining that these cameras were preventing their cows from drinking. It was just becoming a big problem.”

Turnipseed said he knew of one individual who was using upwards of 300 cameras scattered across several hunt units, and he’s seen a photo of 32 cameras around a single water hole.

“It was getting out of hand,” said Turnipseed. “Just about every water source in the drier parts of the state had multiple cameras on it. We felt like we had to do something. Banning them on public land a little before and during hunting season just covered all the bases.”

What’s the harm? In places like Arizona, Nevada, and other places with limited water, Moretti said the answer is simple.

“When you have a dozen or more cameras around a single water hole and people going in to check them on a regular basis, it can really throw the animals off their normal routines and make them go nocturnal,” he said. “They can’t get a drink when they want to. That’s not good for the animals or the hunters.”

The disruption may be over in Nevada, but it will continue in Arizona. The Arizona Game and Fish Commission backed off its original plan to ban the use of all trail cameras within a quarter-mile of any water source on public land. Standard cameras that collect images on an SD card are still legal to use, even adjacent to a water source, but cellular cameras are banned on public land.

“That seems contradictory to me,” said Olis. “If the idea is to prevent people from walking in to check their cameras a ton, you’d think they would have banned regular game cameras. Cellular cameras allow hunters to check their photos without ever going near their camera.”

This isn’t just about fair chase and animal disturbance, said Boone and Crockett Club Marketing Director Keith Balfourd. The spike in cameras around public water holes was resulting in more conflicts among hunters. Cameras were vandalized or stolen, and hunters were, according to Turnipseed, “literally fighting over animals they got on camera.”

“It was starting to take game wardens away from other, more serious work,” Balfourd added. “Instead of working on things like poaching cases, they were getting sucked into disputes and being asked to investigate stolen cameras.”

Some camera owners were actually selling images of specific animals and the GPS coordinates of where those photos were taken. Turnipseed has heard of photos and locations selling for $5,000 and more. At least one Web-based business uses a “field team” to “manage an extensive, private system of trail cameras to observe unit activity and gather data from the field on public land.”

The Boone and Crockett Club will no longer accept entries that were taken with the aid of a cellular-linked trail camera, sighting ethics as the reasoning. Regular game cameras are still allowed.

“It doesn’t reflect well on hunters when we start to rely on all sorts of technological gadgets to have a successful hunt,” said Balfourd. “The fact that we are even having this discussion should raise a red flag. At what point does technology affect the tradition of hunting?”

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