Do drones belong on the hunt?

A closer look at the debate about drones and hunting

Steve Alderman

A moose in the middle of a swamp looks surprisingly into a camera. A mule deer bedded in the shade to escape the summer heat is startled and runs away. Bighorn sheep grazing along a ridgeline scatter to the sound of buzzing…

That sound you hear? Is that the sound of unmanned aerial vehicles (a.k.a. drones) clashing with hunting ethics? Or maybe it is the sound of progress. High tech scouting equipment advances have dramatically changed hunting techniques over the years, yet the questions around fair chase ethics remain. From animal rights activists to established hunting organizations, everyone has something to say about drones and hunting. The biggest surprise? They often say the same thing. Here’s my look at the state of the drone debate in the U.S. today.

Just What Is a Drone Anyway?

Drones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned aerial systems — the terms often get jumbled. Some advocates prefer the term UAV, particularly as this technology’s applications are explored for the commercial and private sector. For my purposes here, a drone is an unmanned flying object, often with multiple motors and a small mounted camera. These drones often have a limited flight range, due to battery life, but are more advanced than a classic remote-controlled airplane. On average these UAV’s can be airborne anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes.

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Photo Credit: Getty Images

How Drones Differ from Other Scouting Technology

Unlike airplanes, helicopters and powered parachutes, drones do not fall under the Federal Airborne Hunting Act, in effect since 1971. This law prohibits tracking, harassing and shooting animals via manned aircraft. But what is the difference between drones and an advanced trail camera that can send images and video to your phone? Although there are laws in many states that outlaw trail cameras with live feeds, as hunter Mike Hanback says in a recent blog post, the difference comes down to a question of ethics. Drones can get great shots of terrain and collect footage for videos and television shows, but many hunters seem to feel that using a drone to scout for deer, elk, sheep or other game crosses the line. Still, should drones simply be treated as just moving scouting cameras? Is this just a case of the hunting community needing to catch up technology and modern times? And what about exceptions to the existing airborne hunting law, such as shooting feral pigs from helicopters in Texas?

Why Is There Even a Debate around This Issue?

Although many say that drones have no place in hunting, there are others who question outright bans. One argument is that if hunters can use aircraft to scout for animals, why not drones? For example, Colorado already prohibits any kind of scouting for game via manned aircraft within 48 hours of hunting. The reasoning follows that existing rules for 24- or 48-hour waiting periods after airborne scouting could be simply extended to include drones.

Drones also could make it easier for people with disabilities to hunt, potentially opening up the sport, reports the Gillette News Record. However, a future where drones harvest bucks while a “hunter” (we use the term loosely here) lays on the couch is highly unlikely. For one, most commercial and DIY drones operate within a limited range of less than 400 feet or by law, line of sight. Another consideration is that in 2005, 40 states banned using pay-per-view technologies that would allow a person to go online and shoot an animal remotely. Some of these bans forbid remote-assisted forms of hunting completely, which could include drones as well. Still, the fear remains about a possible scenario where hunters and guides use GPS to track down a specific animal without laying in wait.

In all honesty, it is 10 to 20 minutes of flight time. That’s right, not what you would think from a piece of equipment that thousands of people may scout and hunt with. On average that is 5 to 15 minutes of flight time before you have to bring it back in. Not to mention the fact that most of these drones only have a carrying capacity of a GoPro. I don’t know how many of you have ever filmed or taken pictures with a GoPro, but you have to be pretty close to an animal to tell it is an animal with a GoPro. It is not like you can fly 500 feet in the sky and see deer everywhere. You would have to be right on top of them. These flying machines are not practical for hunting or scouting. They are limited in flight time and what they can see with the cameras they can carry.

It seems to me that the bigger issue is a misunderstanding about them and what they are capable and or not capable of doing. We have all seen the video of the moose or the bighorn sheep filmed with a drone; what they are not explaining is that both of these animals were found not by the use of drones, but with binoculars, and just filmed with UAVs.

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Photo Credit: Getty Images

As a video hobbiest who loves to take his cinematography skills to the next level, I own a drone, but that is not what I call it. A drone is what the military use to spy on you or neighboring countries. I have an RC quadcopter or UAV. Drone is a big scary word that most people have a knee jerk reaction to. UAVs are not practical for scouting or hunting. Sure, that doesn’t mean that ten years down the road they won’t be, but right now it is not an issue in the hunting world. More people will use million dollar helicopters this year than drones to find big game to be hunted. The key word is find. I could fly a UAV for days and never see a deer, it’s just not practical. That doesn’t mean some weekend warrior will not try it. That is what this boils down to in the end. A few bad eggs are ruining it for the rest of us.

Laws That Cover Drones and Hunting Are on the Rise

There is also a question of the law. As mentioned above, hunters who use helicopters or other aircraft to access public hunting lands often must wait 24 or 48 hours to abide by laws that prohibit flying, locating a bull or buck, and going directly for the harvest. "But airplanes are big and loud, (and) pilots are required to file flight records, so they’re much easier to enforce. All that’s out the window with drones,” Land Tawney, executive director of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Association, said to Field and Stream.

Although there is no federal regulation as of yet for recreational use of drones, some states aren’t waiting for the feds and have started to address drones and hunting. The language of these laws and regulations differs, but most of them have a blanket ban on using a drone or UAV for any kind of hunting-related activity (scouting or shooting). Here again is a difference with the narrow uses for manned aircrafts as a way to scout as long as the rules about wait time are followed. Colorado passed the first ban on drones in January 2014. Alaska and Montana passed similar bans this spring; Alaska listed exploding salt licks, poison, bombs and radio communication as other unlawful hunting methods. Meanwhile, Idaho and Wisconsin already folded drones into existing regulations on the use of aircraft to hunt wildlife. New Mexico’s ban on drones for hunting was just approved at the end of June 2014. Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Vermont and Arizona also have drone bans for hunting under consideration.

The National Park Service has also banned drones from 84 million acres of public lands, including Zion and Yosemite, after reports of drones buzzing animals and visitors alike. Once again, one or two bad apples go and mess it up for the rest of us. Zion in particular remains concerned about how UAVs could adversely effect both bighorn sheep and the possibility of endangered condor chick successfully hatching. Well, the people walking around the park have a chance to impact that, too. I understand their concerns; there should be regulations in place, but an all-out ban is taking my freedoms away and on public land to boot. They have already put laws in place that state anyone that contributes to wildlife stress through drone use can face up to six months of imprisonment and/or a $5,000 fine.

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The author out testing the XP2 from XProheli. Photo Credit: Steve Alderman

Drones Bring Together Opposing Advocacies

Many conservation and hunting groups have released statements against the use of drones by hunters, citing the ethics of fair chase. This includes Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Orion-The Hunters’ Institute, the Pope & Young Club, the Boone and Crockett Club and the Izaak Walton League of America. These hunter groups are joined by animal rights advocates, such as PETA and the Humane Society of the United States, in asking states to discourage the use of drones in big game hunting of animals such as elk, deer and sheep. In many ways it is a repeat of an alliance made to ban Internet hunting in 2005.

Hunting down Drones in the Name of Privacy

Another aspect of the drone debate comes from concerns around privacy and rotecting “Western traditions of sovereignty and freedom.” Deer Trail, Colo. made headlines last fall with its proposal to issue drone hunting licenses. Hundreds of people applied for the right to shoot down UAVs by sending in money last fall even though the idea was still just a proposal. The measure was itself shot down in a local vote in April 2014, yet Phillip Steel’s proposal struck a cord with hunters and piracy advocates alike.

Hunter harassment also is a concern. Although game wardens oversee that hunters follow the law, PETA’s “Air Angel” quadcopters are another use of drones that has ruffled feathers. These hobby drones are not allowed to track or harass hunters in states that include Illinois and Alabama; we will see what happens in coming months as regulations about private and commercial drone use come under more debate.

Some have said that the best way to deal with drones invading privacy is to shoot them down, as was the case with the proposed Deer Trail licensing. The FAA reminded the public with a statement in 2013 that “shooting at an unmanned aircraft could result in criminal or civil liability, just as would firing at a manned airplane." Then again, shooting down drones may not be possible in coming years. Advances in drones have made models that are virtually indestructible, like this one designed by Marque Cornblatt. This video shows a drone prototype that resists multiple types of crashes, fire, dropping from 400 feet, and being shot by a shotgun.

Drones Bring up the Existential Hunting Questions

Throughout the coverage of drones and hunting, the same questions keep repeating. Does using a drone cheapen the hunt? What’s the difference between hunting and finding? Why is flying in a powered parachute allowed in some areas to scout while drones are completely banned? Where does technology start to override fair chase?

In Short: What Is the Point of Hunting?

Drones call into question the ethics of fair chase, especially the potential ramifications if animals no longer feel safe hiding in thick terrain. It seems that the tide of opinion rests against drone use in the field. “It’s like cheating,” said hunter and Wyoming State Rep. Troy Mader, R-Campbell County. Or, to put it even more bluntly, take this headline from an Albuquerque Journal editorial: “Real hunters don’t drone” and I couldn’t agree more, but the fact of the matter is 90% of drone owners do not hunt and 99% of those that do hunt do not use them to hunt or scout. So why waste all this time arguing, debating and making laws for something that is not that big of an issue? It seems the bigger issue is the misunderstanding about them and what they are capable and or not capable of doing. All I say is, look at the big picture before you make uneducated decisions. UAV regulations can be a good thing if everything is taken into consideration.

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