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Arizona wildlife commission considers ban on remote cameras for hunting
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Arizona wildlife commission considers ban on remote cameras for hunting

Some argue remote cameras are unfair to game animals, annoying to other hunters

State hunting regulators are considering a ban on remote cameras they say make the sport less sporting.

The proposed rule would prohibit the use of motion-activated trail cameras to stalk animals for hunting in Arizona.

Supporters of the measure argue that the use of such technology violates what’s known as “fair chase” by reducing the ability of animals to elude detection.

The devices also can be a nuisance in busy hunting areas, where the few water sources available to wildlife are being overrun by cameras and people coming to check on them.

“The technology has gotten much cheaper, and it has been proliferating in use,” said Kurt Davis, chairman of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission. “You can buy them in six-packs now.”

Davis said hunters and ranchers have complained about increased vehicle traffic and activity around certain water holes as a result of trail cameras, which people leave in the field for days or weeks at a time to collect time-stamped images they can use to pick out trophy animals and identify patterns in their movements and behavior.

Ban would include public and private land

There is also concern that the increase in human activity is putting more stress on wildlife by chasing animals away from water in the midst of drought in an already arid landscape.

“Certain (hunting) units are hit harder than others,” Davis said. “There are some that will have water holes with 30 to 40 cameras on them.”

And the problem is likely to get worse as the state’s population continues to grow and the cost of the cameras continues to drop, Davis said. “You try to get in front of this stuff.”

Since the commission regulates all of Arizona’s wildlife, the camera ban would apply to hunting activity anywhere in the state, be it public or private land.

The rule would not affect the use of trail cameras for scientific studies, recreational wildlife viewing or other purposes unrelated to the “take” of a game animal.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department will accept public input on the proposal through Feb. 1. The commission is slated to vote on the rule at its March 19 meeting in Bullhead City. Commissioners could approve it as written, reject it completely or make changes that would trigger another round of public comment.

If adopted, the rule would not take effect until after Jan. 1, 2022.

Davis said the commission has already received about 600 comments, most of them from hunters who favor the ban.

State lawmakers have also taken a crack at the issue. Davis said two bills governing wildlife cameras were introduced during the last legislative session, but neither passed.

That’s probably for the best, he said, since “one of them would have accidentally banned duck hunting.”

Regulators always look for next new toy

Regulating hunting and fishing means staying on top of the latest advancements in the field, Davis said. In recent decades, the commission has had to write rules governing the use of aircraft, unmanned drones, advanced weaponry and synthetic bait, which Davis jokingly referred to as “deer crack.”

He said new technologies developed for the military will sometimes make their way to law enforcement agencies and, eventually, into the outdoor recreation sector. There are self-correcting rifles that adjust for a shooter’s shortcomings, arrows with propellant to speed their flight, and smart bullets that home in on body heat.

Each year, Davis said, the Arizona Game and Fish Department sends someone to the massive SHOT Show — short for Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade — in Las Vegas to scout out the latest gear and identify potential future regulatory issues.

The FWC is implementing a new tool to help find invasive Burmese pythons in the Everglades ecosystem. The FWC’s new Detector Dog Team is now up and running, removing Burmese pythons from the wild.

The Game and Fish Commission first started looking at potential problems related to remote cameras in 2016. Two rules were proposed in 2018 — one for live cameras with transmitters, the other for so-called passive cameras that store images on internal memory cards — but only the live-camera ban was adopted.

Not long after that, Davis said, the commissioners received a petition, signed by more than 200 hunters, calling for a total ban on all trail cameras in hunt areas.

In early December, they voted 5-0 to begin drafting such a rule.

Since then, the message boards on hunting websites have lit up over the issue. Some commenters argue that using a trail camera isn’t “true hunting,” while others insist it can be a valuable tool, especially for casual hunters who might not have the resources or the time to scout their hunt areas in person.

Then there are those who see the proposed rule as a “slippery slope” that will lead to further regulation of their sport.

volunteer concerned about blowback

Prescott Valley resident and longtime hunter Janet Drake is worried about the unintended consequences of a camera ban.

For the past nine years, she and her husband have helped monitor bighorn sheep populations for Game and Fish, volunteer work that involves long days of hiking and driving over punishing back roads to place and check remote cameras on the edges of cliffs. She said none of the images they gather is used for hunting.

Cameras like that would still be legal under the new rule, but Drake said the people she and her husband might run into in the backcountry won’t necessarily know that. She’s concerned about physical threats or vandalism of their equipment.

“People are going to think I’m breaking the law,” she said. “There are going to be people out there who are angry that they can’t have their cameras anymore.”

As far as Drake is concerned, the real problem isn’t the technology but the behavior of those who are abusing it. And, as usual, the response from regulators is to let a small percentage of irresponsible people ruin things for everybody else, she said.

Drake also questions how state wildlife managers will enforce such a rule — or whether they will even bother. Despite the 2018 ban on cameras with transmitters, she said there are “thousands of them out there still being used.”

Davis acknowledged that policing an all-out camera ban won’t be easy, but few hunting regulations are.

Fortunately, the vast majority of hunters seem more than happy to follow the rules and keep an eye out for those who don’t, Davis said. “We have 97% compliance.”

In hunting, “harvest is not guaranteed”

Drake has a personal stake in the issue. She hopes to be drawn for a bighorn sheep tag someday, but the new rule could make it illegal for her to hunt in the same area where she and her husband have been collecting camera data for Game and Fish. She will be forced to choose between her work on behalf of the state and what could be a once-in-a-lifetime hunting opportunity.

“It’s causing me to not want to do this volunteer work anymore,” she said.

Davis is sympathetic, but he said something needs to be done to rein in the number of trail cameras clustered around Arizona’s water holes during deer and elk season.

Already, a cottage industry is springing up around the technology. He said he recently heard from the owner of a business that sets up wildlife cameras around the state and then sells the images to hunters.

Some guide services also place cameras in the field — sometimes by the dozens — to help find just the right hunting spot or the most impressive quarry for their clients.

To Davis, it’s another example of our growing societal addiction to convenience. “We want instant results, but hunting is not about instant results,” he said. “Harvest is not guaranteed.”

It’s not even always the point.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@tucson.com or 520-573 4283. On Twitter: @RefriedBrean


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