Are Trail Cameras Bad for Hunting? Utah Joins Arizona in Enacting Ban

By Rich Davenport, published January 7, 2022

Smart Trail Camera afield with rain cover installed

Are trail cameras good or bad for hunting? This debate seems to be garnering more attention across the Nation as high-tech devices in many styles and extended capabilities become more widespread in use, prompting some critics to wonder where the hunt in hunting went. Concerns over fair chase being replaced by technology is spurring debate, and in two states, regulatory action to assure hunting and the principles of fair chase are maintained.

The first state to announce a trail camera use ban was Arizona, after game officials took multiple complaints from hunters on public lands that the watering holes have become somewhat of a deer paparazzi ambush point of sorts, as many hunters had begun the practice of placing cameras near these places, and near common feeding areas, in larger numbers since these devices have become smarter and capable of transmitting images directly to the hunter’s smart phone. Arizona had already banned the use of live feed cameras in 2018, and now, a full ban on these cameras took effect on December 31, 2021.

It appears Utah is following suit, with the state Wildlife Board voting 4-3 to implement a trail camera ban use during the hunting seasons to assure a return of fair chase. Utah’s ban, which will run from July 31 – December 31 annually, aims at both internal storage models and those that transmit images via cellular internet connection. The Utah ban covers use on both private and public lands, where the cameras aid in scouting and tracking deer, elk and moose, but use for predator hunting, like for cougars, remains okay. Utah also banned the use of thermal imaging night vision devices which are sometimes used by hunters to aid in tracking and recovering wild game at night.

Technology is not something new to the outdoors sports, and each new groundbreaking kit brings with it critics complaining that technology gives hunters, and anglers, unfair advantage over game and fish, diminishing the concepts of fair chase. This argument has been had when compound bows were first introduced, portable treestands, modern rifle and shotgun optics, newer hyper-velocity firearms, even the advent of ATVs and UTVs have brought fierce debate in hunting circles – sometimes rightly, and sometimes wrongly. However, it appears with the trail camera issue, some critics, both within and without the hunting circles, have seemingly decided this is a hill to die on.

Some critics have been claiming these devices make it “easier for a hunter” to kill wild game. This is an example of wrong thinking, as the cameras do not put a crosshair on a deer. What it does do is make the task of scouting an area for potential specific deer to hunt a more efficient task than old school, get afield and hike and watch and note, well before the start of any given big game season, and with time becoming more of a premium with every passing year, trail camera use maximizes the hunter’s time in seeing what animals are in the vicinity of a planned hunt, allowing the time that would be spent hiking and seeking to be used in other areas of living a busy life, tending to family obligations, work, and the basics like shopping, taking the vehicle for an oil change, etc.

In Arizona, another phenomenon was the increased foot traffic around watering holes from hunters retrieving the SD cards to see what the camera captured. This increased disturbance from multiple hunters, which has increased over the past several years, has created concerns over increased stress on the wildlife unnecessarily, another reason for the AZ ban.

The Utah measure, by contrast, also bans the “sale or purchase of trail camera footage or data to take, attempt to take or aid in the take or attempted take of big game animals”, as this appeared to become a growing practice among hunters in the Salt Lake state.

“Our intent here was never to harm a producer, it was to make a rule that prevented the use of transmitting trail camera for hunting big game,” Covy Jones said, ┬áthe big game coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, adding that they specified the animals that could be hunted to close any opportunity for people to use that change as a loophole around the rule. Government and educational organizations can continue to use trail cameras during a hunt, and landowners may still use these devices to monitor their property for trespassers or to maintain eyes on agricultural operations, but their use must be discontinued during the hunting season.

Enforcement of these bans in both AZ and UT appear to present challenges, if enforcement is even realistic and affordable for what may be returned. Yet concerns over technological advancements remain something to watch, as regulated sport hunting is about protecting the game animals through concepts of fair chase, scientific analysis and maintaining a healthy abundance as the management goal. The use of drones with cameras mounted on them has already been banned during hunting seasons in most states. Concerning trail cameras, especially those which transmit their data to the owner, all but eliminating the need to visit the camera to extract the data, do bring many questions and concerns to the sporting community and wildlife officials alike. Increased instances of theft of these cameras is also driving some of the actions to ban these devices during the seasons.

Could something similar come to New York? It is possible, but conditions differ between these states, which is part of the conversation driver in both AZ and in UT. For instance, Utah issues a very limited number of general deer take permits, with the 2021 issuance reduced to 74,025 permits, a decrease of 5,650 permits from 2020. In AZ, approximately 269,000 hunters take to the field each year, with many in pursuit of both whitetail and mule deer, where numbers of each species are estimated to be between 70,000 and 80,000 per species. Conditions in Arizona, due to frequent droughts, also play a big role concerns regarding deer populations, as those events reduce deer populations very significantly, with rebounds often taking more time than expected. In Utah, another state that sees drought negatively impact deer numbers, is estimated to currently harbor 320,000 deer, the lowest total in several years, but certainly higher than estimates showed between 2000 and 2010. New York doesn’t see population impacts from drought, being a Northeast state blessed with lots of water, with estimated deer numbers eclipsing 1.2 million animals, with hunter numbers exceeding 560,000. In fact, many years the New York estimated deer harvest exceeds the total population of deer in Arizona, while Utah doesn’t see harvest numbers as high as NY, even when totaled up over the past 10 years!

Nevertheless, hunter attitude and wildlife officials could start examining the proliferation of these devices to determine whether regulation is warranted. Considering the size of NY’s whitetail deer populations, and with recent moves by NYSDEC to expand hunting opportunity to allow hunters to take more deer, it is hard to imagine any moves that could reduce the harvest potentials would be entertained.

But the trend seems to be emerging across hunting circles, and only time will tell whether New York will join the fray of clamping down on technology to maintain the fair chase aspects that help protect wildlife from over-harvest, while maintaining the equity of opportunity for all in NY. Eyes wide open, folks…. Always.

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