July 06, 2021
Since the creation of the modern game camera years ago, such cameras have become an important tool in the autumn arsenals of bowhunters everywhere across the nation.
From mid-summer population surveys to see what big-game critters made it through the winter and spring to figuring out the best locations to place a new stand or ground blind to even helping wildlife managers determine which bucks and bulls are upcoming targets and which need another year or two of seasoning, game cameras are as commonplace to bowhunting now as the Borsalino hunting fedora worn by the late Fred Bear once was.
But as the usage of game cameras has become more widespread and the technology behind such devices has steadily increased — even to the point of being able to deliver real-time imagery and videos by way of cellular transmission — the use of game cameras has also generated some controversy, most notably in parts of the western U.S.
The controversy has created a tidal way of opinion in Arizona in recent months after a proposal late last year became the law of the land recently in the Grand Canyon State, bringing about a total ban on game-camera usage by hunters beginning a few months from now on New Year’s Day.
That forthcoming ban is the end result after a recent Arizona Game and Fish Department Commission meeting in Payson on June 11, 2021 where commissioners voted 5-0 to ban the use of game camera for the purpose of helping hunters take big-game animals.
With the Payson Roundup newspaper and website reporting an overflow crowd of nearly 50 people in attendance — and others commenting by telephone — there was much opposition to the controversial move. The Roundup recorded 31 people voicing their opposition to the ban while 18 others supported the move.
According to a variety of published reports, the ban came after months of contentious debate following an initial AZG&FD proposal in December 2020. In an agency news release from late last year, the Department noted that commissioners were presented with the proposal to vote on “…rulemaking with proposed language that would prohibit the use of trail cameras for the purpose of taking or aiding in the take of wildlife.”
At the Commission’s February 2021 meeting, however, the commissioners then “…voted 5-0 to open a separate rulemaking with proposed language that, if approved, would:
- Prohibit the use of trail cameras for the purpose of taking or aiding in the take of wildlife within ¼ mile of a developed water source.
- Allow the use of trail cameras to aid in the take of wildlife from February 1 through June 30 as long as the camera is not placed within ¼ mile of a developed water source.”
That February proposal did not replace the rule proposal set in place last December, but it did give Arizona commissioners another option to consider at the end of their agency’s rulemaking process. At the recent meeting in Payson, the Commission decided to go with the total ban, which will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2022.
The reason for the Arizona ban centers, at least in part, around the idea of fair chase, or the ethical hunting and taking of big game animals where the hunter does not have an unfair advantage over such hunting season staples as whitetails, elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and more.
Add in the fact that privacy issues come into play when people are photographed on public land without their knowledge, bitter competition happens after choice hunting spots and/or trophy big game animals are discovered, and scarce resources such as water and food become magnets for hunter confrontations, and the long controversy is the result.
Back east in the whitetail woods of North America, the widespread use of game cameras — particularly on private land — has been an accepted as part of the hunting culture for a number of years now. But out west, where public land abounds, food and water are limited, and the hunting landscape is different, the topic has been a lightning rod in western big-game hunting circles for some time.
In fact, while the vote last month by Arizona made for splashy headlines and social media posts, it isn’t the first time that game camera usage has been in the crosshairs of some western states.
In fact, in Arizona itself, the state actually banned the use of live-action cameras in 2018, a move that was followed up with the rulemaking process that has resulted in the total ban that will be in place at the beginning of 2022.
To the north in Utah, Governor Spencer Cox signed HB0295 into law earlier this year, a piece of legislation that gives instructions to the Bee Hive State’s Division of Wildlife Resources Wildlife Board to make rules and regulations pertaining to trail camera usage in that state.
On the northern end of the Rocky Mountains in Montana, the Big Sky State banned trail cameras in 2010, although they later amended that regulation to apply only to cameras linked to cell phones. And out west in the Great Basin, Nevada has also banned the use of trail cameras on public lands within the state at certain times of the year.
Why is the practice of using cameras — some call them game cameras, others call them trail cameras — so controversial in the Rocky Mountain states and the Great Basin, where much of the nation’s big game hunting opportunity outside of whitetails is found?
Guide Waylon Pettet, a Payson resident and owner of AZ Ground Pounders Outfitters, told the Payson Roundup that the woods in his area are “…oversaturated with cameras.”
“There’s not a water source that certain animals can go to that doesn’t have cameras on it,” Pettet told the Roundup. “There’ll be times when we go out to a certain waterhole and we’ll have 10-12 cameras on the same hole and the people are checking the cameras all the time.”
While there’s little question that the use of game cameras is an effective means of putting clients on trophy big game animals like the huge bull elk that Arizona is famous for, Pettet said that he’s not opposed to the ban.
“Right now, to be competitive in the field, we use trail cameras, but we’re willing to give up the trail cameras completely in order for it to be a fair playing field for people that don’t have cameras, as well,” he told the Roundup.
Beyond the western debate about the use of game cameras, such products are also receiving additional scrutiny elsewhere. In fact, in a feature story package forthcoming soon in Game and Fish Magazine, a sister publication of Bowhunter, the topic is examined in part from an ethics standpoint, including statements from the Boone and Crockett Club and the Pope and Young Club about their use by fair-chase hunters, along with how camera usage can impact record book entry submissions.
There’s little doubt that game cameras are among the most widespread and popular tools that bowhunters have at their disposal today, nor is there any debate about the fact that the industry will continue to expand as technological advances continue to push the market forward. In short, game cameras certainly appear to be here to stay, unless every state in the U.S. follows Arizona’s lead somewhere in the future.
And while the unanimous vote last month by the Arizona Game and Fish Department Commission is merely the latest salvo fired in the smoldering battle over when, where, and how trail cameras should be used in hunting situations across the U.S., it almost certainly will not be the final time that the topic gets addressed.
Because in the years to come, expect even more discussion around hunting camp campfires, around the breakfast table in local coffee shops, and in the state houses and commission meeting rooms of natural resource agencies all across the country as they wrestle with the topic.
No matter where those conversations lead, as always, expect the latest such bowhunting news right here at Bowhunter.