Trail cameras, or game cameras, are commonly used by wildlife biologists, conservation officers, and hunters for a variety of reasons. Wildlife biologists working for state fish and wildlife agencies or universities use these cameras to conduct research on wildlife populations, and conservation officers use them to investigate suspected violations of state wildlife law, including poaching and illegal baiting. Hunters also use trail or game cameras to monitor wildlife on their property or on public lands in preparation for hunting season. However, continued advancements in technology have posed an ethical debate within the hunting community concerning technology and the Fair Chase Ethic. These cameras can deliver photos and location information of wildlife to hunters in real-time, which many view as an improper advantage for hunters over the game they pursue. Others express concern over the potential for increased harvest success rate, which could result in fewer hunting opportunities through fewer tags being issued by state agencies. Additionally, in some instances these cameras have caused privacy concerns when they are placed on private lands by a person other than the landowner.
The first unmanned wildlife camera was used in 1880 to photograph white-tailed deer in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, although its size, massive flash, and tripwire-system render this first iteration as primitive when compared to modern trail cameras. Today, trail cameras can produce high-definition images of wildlife, regardless of light or weather conditions, allowing a hunter to anticipate the size, sex, and other characteristics of animals that the hunter can expect to encounter on a given piece of private or public land come hunting season. However, once hunting season arrives, trail cameras may also deliver this information to hunters while they are afield, providing that hunter with real-time information that some within the hunting community consider as an unfair advantage over wildlife. This concern is raised most often in western states that have limited water sources available to wildlife, which in turn also limits their ability to elude detection.
In addition to concerns over the Fair Chase Ethic, trail cameras may be placed on others’ private property, causing inherent privacy concerns. In 2023, NH H.B. 221 was passed to allow a hunter to take wildlife by using a game camera to locate or surveil any game animal, provided that the person does not take the animal on the same calendar day that they viewed an image of that animal from any game camera in the area. However, under the law, hunters may not place a game camera unattended on property owned by another person without the landowner’s written consent. Game cameras may, however, be placed on public land. The law also required that when a person places a game camera on public land or on land that they do not own, they must attach their name and contact information to the game camera.
Points of Interest
- The use of trail cameras for the purpose of hunting is prohibited in AZ and NV, while AK, KS, MT, NH, and NM prohibit or limit the use of trail cameras with wireless transmission capabilities for the purpose of hunting.
- Following a legislative attempt to address trail/game cameras in 2020, the AZ Game and Fish Commission in 2021 unanimously voted to prohibit their use for the purpose of taking, or aiding in the take, of wildlife. The Commission cited the unfair advantage that the technology can offer to hunters, particularly given the state’s scarcity of water sources, where wildlife loses the opportunity to elude detection.
- In 2023, the KS Wildlife & Parks Commission voted to ban the use of trail or game cameras on public lands and waters year-round, prohibiting hunters from using images of wildlife produced by or transmitted from a satellite to locate or aid in taking wildlife.
- Originally introduced in 1999, MT’s game camera legislation has been amended several times, most recently in 2021. Under current law, it is unlawful for a hunter to use any electronic motion-tracking device, which are defined in the state as “remote operated camera or video devices capable of transmitting real time information, pictures or videos,” to track the motion of a game animal.
- The NM Department of Game and Fish was granted authority by the legislature in 2019 to prescribe rules that embody the principles of the Fair Chase Ethic, including through prohibiting the use of technologies that provide hunters and anglers with specific wildlife location data. With that authority, the Department prohibited the use of any cellular, Wi-Fi, or satellite camera for the purpose of hunting or scouting remotely for any big game animal.
- Legislation introduced by UT Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Casey Snider and adopted by the legislature in 2021 granted the state’s Wildlife Board the ability to regulate the use of trail cameras. With that authority, the Utah Wildlife Board ultimately prohibited the use of trail cameras to take or aid in the taking of big game, cougars, or bears between July 31st and December 31st on public or private property. In 2023, the legislature then passed a follow-up bill, which put the Wildlife Board’s ruling on trail cameras into statute, with a few exceptions. Namely, trail cameras that use internal data can be used on private lands, as long as they do not transmit data in real time to hunters. Trail cameras may also continue to be used for research purposes, including by nongovernment organizations, educational institutions, and people conducting research in conjunction with the UT Division of Wildlife Resources. Finally, trail cameras may be used for active agricultural operations to monitor bears or cougars that may cause livestock depredation.
- In 2021, the OK Legislature passed a law that eliminated the power of an OK Game Warden to place a camera on private property without the express permission of the property owner or pursuant to a warrant.
Legislators are encouraged to work with their respective state’s sportsmen’s community, as well as their state fish and wildlife agency, to weigh state-specific legislative decisions regarding the use of trail cameras for hunting.