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No Pictures: Explaining Utah's Trail Camera Ban

Bowhunters, particularly western residents, stuck with many unanswered questions surrounding game camera regulations.

No Pictures: Explaining Utah's Trail Camera Ban

(Photo courtesy of Browning Trail Cameras)

Cameras are everywhere today, a modern fact of life where a photo is taken — and utilized by most of us, in some way — dozens of times over during the course of a day.

From taking a smartphone photo of a signed document you need to send to the boss to a snapshot of a recipe as you shop the aisles of the local grocery store to a doorbell camera showing a package was delivered to an exciting image of one of the kids making a goal during evening soccer practice, there are countless photos that become a part of our lives every day.

Some — like a ski area webcam as spring break vacation approaches — help keep us motivated on yet another soulless Monday morning. Others — like a traffic cam showing heavy congestion on the local Interstate — help us plan our daily activities and travel. And others — like a favorite social media bowhunting star showing us workout regimens or a big-game critter arrowed last autumn — fuel our dreams for the fall months of September, October, and November.

There’s even aerial photos of where you hope to be this fall, hunting grounds in the midwestern whitetail woods, a desert flat where a big pronghorn antelope might being lying in the limited shade, or a high country bench where the bull elk of your dreams could bugle and sing their wild, mountainous song during the September rut.

But despite the myriad of daily uses of cameras and photographs that have become an integral part of the modern lifestyle, it’s the latter instance here that has been drawing increasingly sharp battle lines between wildlife officials, record keeping organizations that champion fair chase, and those who simply enjoy chasing critters on the western hunting grounds.

The latest shot over the bow in that building battle — specifically, a battle where the use of game cameras by western hunters is in play — comes from the state of Utah.

Earlier this year in January, the Utah Wildlife Board voted “ restrict the use of trail cameras and other hunting-related technologies…” according to a Utah DNR news release.

The vote in that Jan. 4, 2022 meeting came about after the Utah Legislature’s passage of HB 295 in 2021, which instructed the Utah Wildlife Board to make some rules in the Beehive State regarding the use of trail camera technology in big game hunting throughout the state.

Because of that, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources conducted two surveys, which the agency says went out to more than 14,000 big game hunters as the DWR sought feedback on potential proposals to eventually be made to the board.

What did those hunter surveys reveal? According to the Utah DWR news release referenced above, the results indicated that “…the majority of the public opposed using transmitting trail cameras for hunting (cameras that transmit images and footage in real time).”

With that backstory in place, the Utah Wildlife Board voted in early January this year to “…prohibit all trail cameras (including both non-handheld transmitting and non-transmitting devices) in the harvest or to aid in the harvest of big game between July 31 and Dec. 31.”

Since outfitters, guides, and dedicated big game hunters who have won the tag lottery and drawn a limited entry big game hunting ticket might not like this rule — or perhaps they do — a key definition was noted by the Utah Wildlife Board.


And that definition is: “A trail camera is defined as a device that is not held or manually operated by a person and is used to capture images, video or location data of wildlife and uses heat or motion to trigger the device.”

That would still allow for the use of handheld DSLR cameras and video cameras to record images and videos of bucks, bulls, and other big game critters, right?

Well, that depends. Because the Utah DWR news release also indicates that, “The board also voted to prohibit 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. That includes images, location information, time and date of the footage and any other data that could aid in the harvest or attempted take of big game.”

But that’s not all. Also of note is that the Utah decision doesn’t apply to government or educational organizations who are gathering wildlife information or to Utah cities involved in the state’s Urban Deer Program.

Nor does it apply to private landowners monitoring agricultural activities or looking for trespassers. But the Utah DWR did make it clear, however, that this private landowner exception does not apply to trail cameras used on private property that are being used to “…help in the harvest of big game between July 31 and Dec 31.”

In other words, if that photo or video capturing unit — handheld, or not — will help you punch a tag the second half of the year, it’s now off limits in Utah.

If you live out west in a mountain town or valley community, if you’re a dedicated bowhunter chasing points and tags in a particular western state, or if you’re just merely an interested hunting archer who follows headlines in our sport each year, then you’re probably already aware of the fact that Utah’s move, as strict as it is, is also part of a broader trend in the west to restrict and/or regulate the use of game cameras in the pursuit of big game animals.

That’s something that we’ve steadily reported on here at our various Outdoor Sportsman Group properties as news has broken, and undoubtedly there will be more headlines to cover in the months ahead.

Headlines like the one that came a few months ago when the Arizona Game and Fish Department Commission voted at its June 11, 2021 meeting in Payson — in a 5-0 unanimous vote, by the way — to ban the use of game cameras for the purposes of helping hunters take big game animals in the Grand Canyon State.

While game camera usage isn’t under scrutiny in the whitetail woods back east, the gamechanging camera units are being looked at by other states besides Utah and Arizona. In fact, many locations throughout the Rocky Mountain and Great Basin regions of the Lower 48 have already or are currently doing so.

In Nevada, the state has stopped the use of trail cameras on certain public lands at certain times of the year while Montana amended a 2010 prohibition against all game cameras to now just apply to those linked to cell phones. New Mexico has its own regs, as does Alaska, and you can be all but certain that the issue isn’t going away anytime soon and will possibly be visited in the future by other popular western big game hunting states.

In addition to the state regulations regarding game camera usage across the American West, there’s also the record keeping aspect here since usage of a trail camera could potentially disqualify a buck or bull from the pages of hallowed record books painstakingly maintained for decades by the Boone and Crockett Club and the Pope and Young Club.

In fact, B&C states clearly on its website under the policy topic of trail camera usage that: “The use of any technology that delivers real-time location data (including photos) to target or guide a hunter to any species or animal in a manner that elicits an immediate (real-time) response by the hunter is not permitted.”.

But as clear as that seems to be, there’s also some shadows here in the minds of some observers, and both B&C and its bowhunting record keeping counterpart, the Pope and Young Club, have tried to clarify the issue more in recent months.

And undoubtedly, that isn’t the last time the topic will be visited by either conservation and record keeping organization.

Why? Because at the end of the day in a changing world where technological advancement pushes the edge of the envelope forward at breakneck speed, outdoor manufacturers look for additional ways to keep sales figures up in these challenging times. Hunters simply look for  legal means to help them punch a tag and hunt more efficiently — all of which makes this topic confusing at best and controversial at worst.

Kyle Lehr, assistant director for big game records with B&C, realizes that the issues noted above could be a bit of a conundrum. He also notes that in some cases, a decision to accept a big game animal — even a potential world record one — could come down to a B&C Records Committee decision.

But he also points out that at the end of the day, the basic question driving all of this forward is — or should be — a rather simple one for most interested parties.

“And that question is whether or not the technology was the primary reason that the animal was taken by the hunter and was harvested,” said Lehr in a 2021 interview with OSG. “You’ve got to ask yourself whether an animal was taken in fair chase, because that’s the fundamental backbone of hunting for B&C, P&Y and conservationists across North America.”

Wildlife officials in Utah believe they found their answer to this question early last month and responded accordingly. And as noted, other states have already done the same, one way or the other.

And you can rest assured that there will likely be more movement on the western big game/game camera topic in the weeks and months that lie ahead.

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