Recent advances in technology, such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s), which can assist in the tracking and taking of game, have posed an ethical debate within the hunting community. Legislators and sportsmen should be mindful of Fair Chase issues and, on a state-by-state basis, determine if legislation is warranted to ensure hunting is practiced ethically in their respective states. In addition, it is critical that any such legislation that is considered be thoroughly vetted with both the state’s sportsmen’s community and fish and wildlife agency.
North America’s hunters have long adhered to a strong tradition of ethics, referred to as the Fair Chase Ethic. Dating back to the late 19th century, this ethical code of Fair Chase outlines the normative means and methods for the harvest of wildlife. The Boone and Crocket Club, a world-renowned big game scoring and record-keeping organization, defines Fair Chase as “the ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging, wild, native North American big game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals.” The Fair Chase Ethic initially served to rebrand hunting in the eyes of Americans. It distinguished the ethical sportsman and woman from the previous era of market hunting and the devastating ecological consequences with which it was associated. Today’s sportsmen and women are the primary funders of state fish and wildlife agencies and are passionate conservationists that – with few exceptions – have a profound respect for their quarry and adhere to ethical means of harvest.
Through time, technological advancements that simplify the tracking and taking of game have posed an ethical debate within the hunting community. At the close of the 19th century, much of the debate centered on the technique of “jack-lighting”, where Adirondack guides would mount tin boxes on the bow of their guide boats with a lit torch inside. By opening one side of the box, they could direct the light towards their quarry, momentarily causing the animal to stop and allowing their hunter to take a shot. Following the advent of the Fair Chase Ethic, “jack-lighting” was made illegal in New York in 1897. Today, nighttime big game hunting (with or without the use of artificial lights) has been banned throughout most of the United States, with exceptions made for specific species in certain states, and nuisance species. Today’s Fair Chase debate centers on much more advanced technology, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or “drones”), that may be used for the remote spotting and tracking of game, trail cameras, and more.
Points of Interest
- In 2017, Minnesota (MN HB 366/MN SB 124), Massachusetts (MA SB 437), and New York (NY A 1437/NY SB 612) introduced legislation to adapt their respective Fish and Game Codes to include measures for the use of “unmanned aircraft systems” in the pursuit of wildlife.
- The Federal Airborne Hunting Act regulates the use of aircraft for hunting, specifically persons shooting from an aircraft. However, it does not address the use of UAVs.
- To date, fourteen states have banned the use of UAVs while hunting (WV, WA, VA, OR, PA, NC, NM, NH, MT, MI, ID, IL, CO, and AK) and even more when just including public/managed land.
- Alaska successfully banned the use of unmanned aircraft in HB 255.
- Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife used its regulatory authority to ban the use of drones in the state.
- Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ regulations specifically ban the use of UAVs/drones for the purposes of concentrating, pursuing, driving, rallying, or stirring up any game animal. Similarly, drones may not be used to scout for animals prior to a hunt nor film a hunt.
- New Hampshire extended the prohibition on harassment of persons hunting, fishing or trapping to include the use of unmanned aerial vehicles through SB 222. New Mexico’s Game Commission used its regulatory authority to ban the use of drones in scouting for or aiding in the harvest of wildlife.
- The Oregon Legislature authorized Oregon’s Fish and Wildlife Commission to adopt rules prohibiting the use of drones for angling, hunting and trapping through the passage of HB 2534.
- Michigan Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus members carried SB 54 and SB 55 through to enactment in 2015, making it illegal to harvest wildlife and harass hunters with drones, respectively.
- The South Dakota Legislature passed HB 1059 in 2020, making it a class 1 misdemeanor for a person to use a drone to hunt, take, drive, rally, locate, or spot a wild bird or animal.
- Enacted in 2020 by South Dakota, SB 162 clarifies language permitting the regulated use of night-vision equipment and artificial light in hunting under specific circumstances and makes violations a misdemeanor.
As advances in technology continue, legislators should be mindful of Fair Chase issues and decide on a state-by-state basis if legislation is warranted to ensure hunting is practiced ethically. It is critical that any such legislation under consideration be thoroughly vetted with both the state’s outdoor sporting community and the fish and wildlife agency.