March 16, 2023
When our Outdoor Sportsman Group editorial crews gear up for the annual wintertime show season and head for the ATA Archery Trade Show and the SHOT Show, we know going in that covering game cameras, or trail cameras as some call them will be a big part of our annual coverage efforts. In fact, entire round-ups are dedicated to the topic at OSG publications like Bowhunter Magazine and Game & Fish Magazine.
The reason for this dedication of our editorial and video resources is easy enough to understand because as any perusal of a hunting equipment catalog, an Internet supply site, or a trip to your favorite box store will confirm, game cameras are a way of life for many whitetail and big game hunters. Heck, even turkey hunters are using game cameras these days to get a head start on filling their tags each spring.
Obviously, game cameras are big business and the discussion centered on a recent Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks Commission decision to ban their usage in public land settings confirms that the topic is newsworthy and at times, viral. More on that decision in a moment.
From a business standpoint, the game camera market—which is fueled by hunters, wildlife biologists, natural resource managers, and property owners who enjoy seeing what’s on their land—began to gather steam earlier in the 21st Century. And as the technological curve continues to expand—the first game cameras were simple instruments that simply housed a film camera containing a roll of 35mm film—the market continues to push forward into the world of high megapixel still shots and HD quality video that can be delivered in real-time.
As our annual trade show coverage details every January, the market continues to grow at a robust pace. And that’s true today even after the craziness of the COVID-19 pandemic and its supply chain issues that left many companies struggling to meet surging demand as hunting license sales increased.
How big is the demand for such products today? Looking back a few years ago, News Channel Nebraska indicated that “The trail cameras industry had reached a sales volume of approximately 469.73 K units in 2011, and the sales volume was estimated 649.07 K units in 2016.” What’s more, the news site also went on to note that “The global Trail Cameras market is valued at 68 million USD in 2020 is expected to reach 82 million USD by the end of 2026.”
But even despite that huge market size, increasingly, users of such products are finding themselves at odds with natural resource agencies that govern the activities of hunters in each state as our hunting culture wrestles with the ethics of camera usage and when is the use of technology too much and in violation of Fair Chase principles.
As referenced above, that idea was brought home again a few days ago as the Sunflower State of Kansas, home to some of the country’s biggest and best whitetail bucks and with an exemplary public hunting land program, saw its seven-member wildlife commission vote in unanimous fashion to ban the use of game cameras on public land in the Sunflower State.
The move, which will be year-round (despite some commission meeting discussion about that), is the first by a whitetail-rich state in the heart of the Midwest’s big buck country and will be in effect for this fall’s Kansas hunting seasons. While not affecting private land, the ban will include both Kansas Department of Wildlife & Parks (KDWP) properties and the state’s popular Walk-In Hunting Access (WIHA) properties too.
The vote in Topeka a few days ago wasn’t a surprise since it was on the Commission’s agenda for its March 9, 2023 meeting. And the vote came after KDWP staff had recommended the move previously, in advance of the March 2023 meeting.
For the record, the specific regulation that was voted on read: “115-8-25. Trail or game cameras and other devices. (a) No person shall place, maintain, or use a trail or game camera on department lands, or any images or video from a trail or game camera including location, time, or date, for any purpose on department lands and waters including walk-in hunting areas (WIHA) and integrated walk-in hunting areas (iWIHA).
(b) For the purpose of this regulation, “trail or game camera” shall include any remote motion-activated or infrared camera in which the shutter is activated by sound triggers, proximity sensation, radio transmitters, or a self-timer built into the trail or game camera.
(c) No person shall use any images of wildlife produced by or transmitted from a satellite to take or aid in the taking of wildlife or to locate wildlife to take or to aid in the taking of wildlife on department lands and waters, including WIHA and iWIHA.
(1) This subsection shall not prohibit the use of mapping systems or programs.
(2) For the purpose of this subsection, “take” shall have the meaning specified in K.S.A.
32-701, and amendments thereto.
(d) This regulation shall not apply to any trail or game camera that is owned by the department or a designated agent and is used for department operations or research on department lands and waters.
After staff presentations and comment from attendees that included groups like the Kansas chapter of the public land championing Backcountry Hunters & Anglers organization, the Commission listened, asked some questions, and then made its vote known.
There’s no doubt that the regulation above is sweeping and comprehensive. And at the end of the day, despite a fair amount of questions from those in attendance—which dealt with the regulation’s specifics, possible enforcement issues, potential changes to the proposal down the road, and even the effect of game cameras on fawning success each year—the KDWP meeting saw Commissioners vote in total agreement on the game camera ban for the state’s public lands.
How wide-reaching is the ban? Well, the regulation will encompass well in excess of a million acres of public land since in addition to KDWP properties, including Kansas' 28 state parks and the state's Wildlife Areas, the regulation also includes the WIHA program, which leases private land for hunting purposes after its beginning back in 1995. Currently, the WIHA program alone has more than one million acres included.
As noted, the move will affect hunters in 2023, but there could be more discussion on the regulation—and potentially, some tweaking and adjustments—down the line. Or at least, that suggestion was made at the March 9 commission meeting.
"We do have a strong commitment to look into some modification down the road but no guarantees," said Commission chairman Gerald W. Lauber of Topeka, Ks. after the vote was taken.
And at least one more of the KDWP commissioners seemed to favor such future discussions too.
"This kind of leads to the broader discussion about technology and how rapidly it's changing," said Commissioner Warren Gfeller of Russell, Ks. "It seems like every change in technology and things we consider is always advantage (to the) hunter, always advantage (to the) hunter."
Gfeller then went on to note that these technological advances seem to be coming faster and faster, and he'd like for the KDWP Commission to have future dedicated discussions about technology and its context within hunting’s Fair Chase principles.
The ban is certainly significant since it comes in one of the nation’s most storied whitetail hunting locations, one whose huge typical and non-typical bucks are numerous within the upper tier of the Boone and Crockett Club and the Pope and Young Club record-keeping organizations.
With the superb whitetail genetics found in Kansas, the hunting season structure that includes a lengthy archery season, an early muzzleloader opportunity, and a rifle season falling in the post-rut period, Kanas bucks are highly coveted and offer some of the best trophy whitetail hunting prospects in the nation every year.
Keep in mind that the Kansas ban on public land trail camera usage is also one of the first dominoes to fall in whitetail hunting states, despite a trend in that same direction by several western states in recent years to also restrict the practice in various ways.
In the past couple of years, we've told you about various bans on camera usage in Arizona, Nevada, and last year, in the state of Utah. And we've even dealt with how record-keeping organizations like the bowhunting world’s Pope and Young Club and the all-encompassing Boone and Crockett Club are handling the issue within their own ranks.
In the Boone and Crockett Club's case, the Missoula, Mont. based organization draws a line not at trail cameras themselves, but for those that deliver "...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."
The B&C organization, which has been one of the nation’s strongest champions of Fair Chase principles and hunting practices since its founding early last century when Teddy Roosevelt and others formed the B&C Club, even posted a recent story on its website talking about big game hunting's paparazzi problem.
"If a hunter uses real-time data animal location data from collared game animals, drones, or cell phones to kill an animal, those actions violate the basis of fair chase,” said Justin Spring, director of big game records for B&C, in the story authored by writer PJ DelHomme. “Using collar data or trail cam images for scouting purposes is one thing. Yet knowing the exact location of an animal before you even start hunting is another thing altogether.”
DelHomme went on to note in his recent story that "As for cameras that require hunters to physically check the photos, there is no across-the-board Club policy. Rather, the Boone and Crockett Club recognizes that states are geographically different, and they will have different regulations. What’s good for states in the Southwest affected by prolonged drought will have different regulations than states in the Midwest or Southeast where water sources are more abundant."
It was also pointed out that the B&C Club supports state game agencies in their decisions regarding trail camera usage.
Because as Spring noted, it's all ultimately about the concern that wildlife managers have for our wildlife resources.
The recent vote by KDWP commissioners earlier this month to ban game cameras on public land certainly pushes the debate further into the whitetail hunting world. And while it isn't the first such move to address the growing use of technology in hunting across North America, it certainly won’t be the last either as population surges, technology pushes the edge of the envelope at almost breathtaking speed, and wildlife resource managers and hunters grapple with the idea of what’s acceptable and what’s too much.
Put simply, the move in Kansas earlier this month will not be the final shot fired in this ongoing hunting world campfire debate, you can be assured of that. And that’s even true east of the Rocky Mountains and Great Basin, spots where the whitetail is the antlered king.
As always, stay tuned to us here at Outdoor Sportsman Group as we work to keep you informed on this topic going forward.