‘We’ve taken a little bit of the hunt out of hunting’: Utah lawmaker seeks to ban baiting, trail cameras

Bill faces its first test this week at the Legislature.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Mule deer stand in a sliver of morning sunshine as they graze in Emigration Canyon east of Salt Lake City in 2018. Utah hunters' increasing use of trail cameras and apples to bait big game has drawn fire from some hunters who see such practices as cheating and disruptive to wildlife's natural behavior. Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, has introduced legislation that would ban these practices.

While frowned upon in many states, the use of bait and trail cameras has become increasingly common for big game hunting in Utah. Some hunters are known to pile apples in the woods weeks before deer season and rig motion-activated cameras on trees.

When a deer comes into view for a tasty sugar fix, the trail cameras snap a photo and moments later the image appears in the hunter’s text-message feed. The practice all but guarantees a successful hunt and Rep. Casey Snider wants to put an end to it.

“One of the things that’s always been important to me, and it’s why I enjoy hunting, is there’s always been this notion of a hunting ethic and fair chase,” said Snider, a Republican from Paradise in Cache County. “If it was just about killing, we could probably all just go to the grocery store, but it’s about something more than that.”

Snider is a committed hunter who ran legislation last year to enshrine the right to hunt and fish in the Utah Constitutionvoters approved that addition — but he fears baiting and cameras degrade big game hunting. Others say bait apples amount to litter and can distort wild animals’ natural behavior.

Snider’s bill banning these hunting practices, HB295, is to be heard Friday by the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee. The young lawmaker is not alone with such concerns. In 2019, the Division of Wildlife Resources’ mule deer committee studied the issue and endorsed a ban on baiting in a split vote.

That vote served as a recommendation to the Utah Wildlife Board, which has yet to take action. DWR, meanwhile, has declined to take a side in the debate and is open to taking direction from the Legislature.

“We look forward to working with the sponsor and the Legislature to address the management of Utah’s wildlife for the benefit of the citizens who enjoy them,” said agency spokesman Mark Martinez.

Trail cameras are used to determine when and how wildlife use a particular spot. Some models wirelessly transmit data in real time. While they are often part of scientific research, hunting guides use them to improve their clients’ chances of bagging coveted game animals. Snider contends hunters’ reliance on technology has gone too far.

“You can’t go to a waterhole without a dozen cameras on it and the forage,” said Snider, who serves on DWR’s Regional Advisory Council for northern Utah. “I’ve got people who’ve called me and said, ‘You want me to pull 90 cameras off the mountain by Aug. 1?’ And in my head, I’m thinking, ‘You have 90 cameras? Like, you’re the reason I have to run this bill.’ These animals are literally documented 24-7. We know where they bed down, we know where they water, we know where they feed. We’ve taken a little bit of the hunt out of hunting.”

DWR currently has no authority to regulate trail cameras, according to Martinez.

“We recognize the issues related to the widespread distribution of trail cameras and their implications for the future,” he said. “With increased use, trail cameras could become intrusive to the public or detrimental to wildlife.”

Likewise, DWR understands that baiting poses problems that range beyond hunting ethics.

“Baiting wildlife can artificially distribute animals on the landscape,” Martinez said, “which can potentially result in habitat damage and increased disease transmission.”

Snider’s bill would prohibit the placement of trail cameras in the field between Aug. 1 and Dec. 31, or at anytime if the camera impedes wildlife’s access to a water source. It defines baiting as “intentionally placing food or nutrient substances to manipulate the behavior of wildlife for the purpose of taking or attempting to take big game.” The language exempts salt licks and mineral blocks, which are commonly used by ranchers to help nourish their livestock.

“Under current statute, I could have a scenario where I pile apples under a tree all summer long. I habituate a deer to that tree, they come in, they know the apples are going to be there. I put a camera on that tree that can send me a text message and tell me when the deer is there,” Snider said. “Opening morning [of the hunting season] comes, I can go get my text message and shoot my dear over a baited set. That’s just not fair to the animal.”

While baiting is not regulated when it comes to hunting wild ungulates, DWR bans the practice for migratory birds and strictly regulates it for black bears.

The bill would ban not only the placing of bait but also shooting big game animals within 50 yards of a bait site or an animal that is being lured to such a site or leaving it. HB295, however, would enable DWR to authorize baiting if it is deemed necessary to reduce deer and elk impacts on cultivated crops.

Also banned in the bill would be the use of state waterfowl management areas for commercially guided hunting.

The bill contains language providing broad exemptions to avoid interfering with the rights of property owners and the activities of government officials in the scope of their employment.