Surveillance cameras spark a debate in the hunting world | 406 Politics
Weighing the benefits of technology with the principles of fair hunting has long been a difficult balance in hunting in Montana and the West.
Photographing wildlife with remote surveillance cameras has grown in popularity over the past 20 years, whether as a non-invasive research tool or as a fun form of recreation. But in the world of hunting, the use of trail cameras has never been so debated.
As technologies advance, laws or regulations that made sense yesterday become obsolete tomorrow, and states and organizations wonder when they should tip the scales one way or another. Utah earlier this month joined Arizona and Nevada as western states restrict the use of trail cameras, and the Boone and Crockett Club recently updated its trophy acceptance standards to better define where it sees ethical lines.
Justin Spring is the club’s director of big game records and says restricting transmittable technology is a longstanding stance for its fair hunting standards. The policy began with the development of the first devices which used a cord or laser which, when broken, transmitted or recorded the time. Animals captured using such devices were not eligible for inclusion in the Boone and Crockett Book of Records.
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As trail cameras have come onto the hunting scene, they’ve fallen into the same category, Spring said, with the club’s policy updated last month. The policy currently prohibits any technology that provides real-time location data for an animal that elicits an immediate response from the hunter.
“What we’re trying to tell people is that it’s your personal decision of what is ethically too far off,” he said. “We have defined this standard of ethical pursuit as what we consider to be the bare minimum, which is that you cannot use a camera that broadcasts a live image because it takes unfair advantage of the game through the use of technology. .”
Boone and Crockett conferred with officials in Arizona as that state considers its CCTV ban enacted last year, which is more restrictive than club standards by prohibiting the use of all trail cameras for hunting. Arizona and some other arid states have struggled with cameras flooding scarce water sources.
“In some cases, it prevented the animals from getting water,” Spring said, clarifying that the club was not pushing for a nationwide ban on surveillance cameras. “There were so many cameras on these limited water resources that it was also ruining the hunt for some people.”
In 2018, Nevada banned surveillance cameras on public land or private land, without authorization, from August 1 to December 1. 31, or from July 1 to December 31. 31 if the camera transmits live images. Nevada regulations also seek to limit the use of trail cameras that interferes with wildlife access to water sources.
Earlier this year, Utah passed its own seasonal ban from July 31 to December 31. 31, and also prohibits the sale of images or videos to assist in hunting.
Montana has a complex history with trail cameras and hunting. At one time, the state was one of the most restrictive in the West and now sits somewhere in the middle.
In 1999, the legislature passed a law prohibiting the possession of any electronic motion-sensing device designed to transmit information to a hunter. But in 2010, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks changed regulations to prohibit the use of any game camera, whether it transmits images or not, during hunting seasons. This drastic change was later challenged by an agency regulatory review panel which found it did not fit the law.
“In 2018, we went before the commission to define what a [motion tracking device] was and clarified the regulations to say that a trail camera can be taken out at any time of the year and is only a violation if the person was in “possession” of the device while hunting”, said Ron Howell, FWP’s legislative liaison.
The 2021 legislature further refined the law to replace “possess” with “use.” Currently, the regulations state that “it is illegal for a person, while hunting, to use any electronic motion tracking device or mechanism designed to track the movement of game and transmit information about the movement of animal to the hunter”.
That means a trail camera that requires in-person verification is legal year-round and hunters use them, said FWP chief enforcement officer Dave Loewen.
“Most of the time, it is hunters who install a camera on [an elk] wallow in the fall and come and check the memory card and it’s perfectly legal,” he said. “It used to be that you couldn’t even pull out a camera if it was antelope season somewhere else, and that didn’t make much sense.”
It is important to understand, according to FWP officials, that the law and regulations only prohibit the transmission of images or videos during the act of hunting. They don’t prevent someone, for example, from receiving a beamed image at home, closing the app on their phone, and then immediately going outside to chase that animal.
“It’s a confusing subject for sure, and the follow-up question is how the hell are you going to apply this,” Loewen said. “I think it’s probably time for a constituency group or the legislature to take another look at it.”
Such an investigation would likely start by determining if the camera is capable of transmitting, and then the device receiving the image could also provide location data, he said.
For Boone and Crockett, such a scenario, although legal in Montana, would result in the disqualification of the animal for inclusion in the record books.
“It would elicit an immediate response from the hunter,” Spring said.
The FWP is getting questions about trail camera rules, but hasn’t seen a major outcry like in other states that have decided to restrict them, Loewen said. The app hasn’t had any big issues with them either, he added, noting that the novelty of the change didn’t bring much feedback.
In the past two legislative sessions, Senator Jill Cohenour has introduced legislation to curb the introduction of technology into hunting. While the East Helena Democrat’s bills focused on restricting the use of GPS data from collared wildlife for hunting, the debate over technology and hunting isn’t going away. Cohenour said she would be interested in legislation dealing with trail cameras if needed.
“As technology advances, it exceeds our ability to address the ethical issues of fair hunting,” she said. “We’ll continue to have these conversations and…as you go along, you’ll have to ask, ‘Where’s the line?’ I think hunters have to draw the line, and that line could be legislative.
Tom Kuglin is an associate editor in the state bureau of Lee Newspapers. Its coverage focuses on the outdoors, recreation and natural resources.