Utah Wildlife Board bans trail cameras for big game hunting

The proliferation of high-tech devices has taken the hunt out of hunting, critics complain.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mule deer stand in a sliver of morning sunshine as they graze in Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City Monday March 19, 2018.

A divided Utah Wildlife Board voted to ban trail cameras for hunting when the motion-activated devices are used to aid in the taking of big game.

These cameras have proliferated across Utah’s public lands, installed by both hunters and non-hunters to surveil wildlife, prompting pushback from many who believe these high-tech devices make a mockery of traditional notions of sport hunting and “fair chase.”

Surveys of Utah hunters by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) documented support for restrictions when it came to hunting deer and elk, but less so when the quarry is cougars and bears. Still three members of the Wildlife Board refused to support the new restrictions, forcing chairman Kevin Albrecht to cast the deciding vote on Tuesday.

The new ban will be in effect from July 31 to Dec. 31 and applies to both cameras with internal storage memory and those that transmit images to the hunter’s cellphone. The prohibition does not apply to private landowners monitoring their property and agricultural operations or municipalities participating in the urban deer program, but it does apply to most hunting on both private and public land.

Board member Wade Heaton, an Alton-based outfitter and guide, said he suspects the new rules will be impossible to enforce and could impinge on the rights of camera users who are not deploying them for hunting.

“There’s a lot of people that love to just get outdoors and do their niche and trail cameras are a niche for a lot of people. I’ve had several families that reach out to me and say, ‘That’s just what our kids do. We can’t draw tags anymore, so we just run trail cameras and that’s our fun. We get those [memory] cards back and it’s Christmas morning,’” said Heaton, who serves on the Kane County Commission. “I don’t want to see us start to further limit people’s enjoyment of the outdoors just because there’s a problem here or there. I just can’t get there.”

Albrecht noted that HB295, a bill sponsored by Rep. Casey Snider and passed last year by the Legislature, directed the board to implement rules to regulate big game hunters’ use of trail cameras and bait after years of failing to take action in the face of mounting concerns over these practices.

“If we just kick it down the road because we don’t want to affect some of those people that just enjoy using cameras,” Albrecht said, “it’s going to come back in a way that we may not appreciate. So I think the time to act is now.”

The board on Tuesday didn’t stop with trail cameras; it also banned the use of thermal-imaging night-vision devices.

“This starts 48-hours before the big game hunt and then it’s 48 hours after,” said DWR big game coordinator Covy Jones in a video presentation. “So you can’t use it [the thermal device] two days before and if you harvest an animal you can’t use it even after the hunt closes to recover [the carcass]. Everybody’s out there hunting, recovering, working on the same foot.”

To craft a camera rule, DWR mailed surveys to 9,000 licensed hunters seeking data on their use own use of cameras and their opinions on regulating them. Of the 2,300 who responded, 57% had not used trail cameras, and only 8% of those who did used transmitting cameras, according Wyatt Bubak, a DWR enforcement officer. Around half the respondents favored restrictions on trail cameras, but that portion rises to two thirds if the restriction targets cameras that transmit images, Bubak said in his video presentation.

While about half of the camera users deployed five cameras or less at a time, the survey did included 11 respondents who deployed 30 or more.

Tuesday’s action also puts an end to the sale of data and images produced by trail cameras. Apparently there is market for such information.

“One of the things we’ve noticed popping up around the West are services where you will go online, see a picture of an animal that you like and then purchase that animal’s image, location information and date that photo was taken from a trail camera in the hopes of harvesting that animal in that location,” said Jones. “Public sentiment was that they would like to see that prohibited, and that’s a recommendation we’re making.”