March 29, 2022
Eric Thompson laughs at the notion that the trail cameras he uses on his Missouri farm give him an advantage over the whitetail bucks he loves to hunt.
“I’ve been dabbling with trail cams since their resolution got good enough that I could tell the difference between a deer and a raccoon,” Thompson says. “I’ve used pretty much all the brands, and the one thing they have in common is they give me an unnaturally high expectation that I’m going to kill a big buck.”
Deer that consistently show up on Thompson’s cameras in the summer and early fall vanish once hunting season starts. Bucks that demonstrate high fidelity to patterns captured by his cameras go nocturnal, or they start deviating from their habits when crop harvest ends or shooting begins.
“I used to plan my whole season around what my cameras told me,” says Thompson. “Now, I use them mainly to catch trespassers and maybe show me if new bucks are in the neighborhood.”
But Thompson’s neighbor can’t imagine hunting without cameras. Sid Camilo says everything he knows about deer has been either learned or confirmed through cameras. To him, any notion that deploying his two-dozen cameras, some of which transmit images to his phone over a cellular network, equates to cheating is ludicrous.
“They are scouting tools, same as if I walked around in the woods and looked at scrapes and rubs,” says Camilo. “I think they make us smarter hunters, not necessarily better hunters.”
But these Missouri hunters’ perspectives are at odds with a growing number of Western wildlife regulators, who claim that trail cameras represent an unnatural—and unacceptable—intrusion into hunters’ relationships with the animals they pursue. In some of these states, trail-camera use has been severely restricted or outright banned.
Exhibit A in the case against trail cameras for Western hunting is a widely circulated photo from Arizona. It’s a post driven into the ground near a remote water hole, and on the post are at least 20 trail cameras, all gazing sleeplessly at the spot where animals drink.
On the basis of that and similar photos, plus testimony from hunters who raised concerns over the use of technology to pursue game animals, Arizona’s Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) in 2018 banned cellular-enabled cameras, or cameras that transmit images wirelessly to a recipient.
And last June the commission banned all trail cameras “for the purpose of taking or aiding in the take of wildlife, or locating wildlife for the purpose of taking or aiding in the take of wildlife.” The ban, which includes “passive” cameras, took effect Jan. 1.
With that measure, Arizona joins Nevada, which in 2018 prohibited trail cameras during hunting season on public land and banned all cellular cameras from July 1 through Dec. 31 annually.
Utah, too, is getting in on the action, banning the use of trail cameras to harvest or to aid in the harvest of big game on both public and private land, and also prohibiting the sale of images from trail cameras. Nevada authorities have reported that photos revealing the dimensions and location of trophy big-game animals have sold for upwards of $5,000.
What all three states share is relatively arid public land, and one of the bases for trail-cam restriction is to minimize human disturbances around these vital water resources. The AZGFD listed “the high (and growing) number of trail cameras on the landscape and water sources” and “potential disturbance to wildlife of frequent visits to set/check trail cameras” among the factors considered in enacting the ban.
Meanwhile, the “referees” of hunting have weighed in on the use of technology to aid in the pursuit of big-game animals. The Boone and Crockett Club, which maintains official big-game records of animals taken under fair-chase conditions, notes that “technological advancement in hunting equipment is a natural progression of our desire to be successful and effective in ethically harvesting game. At some point, these technologies can displace a hunter’s skills to the point of taking unfair advantage of the game.”
Boone and Crockett notes that, like night-vision, rangefinding riflescopes, drones, or thermal-imaging devices, transmitting trail cameras are a violation of fair-chase ethics, and animals taken with their aid will not be accepted in the official records of the club.
“Trail cameras can be a helpful tool in game management and selective hunting,” the Boone and Crockett Club states. “The use of devices that transmit captured or live images from the field back to the hunter crosses the line of fair chase.”
But some Western hunters question the situational validity of restrictions on trail cameras. Some suggest that transmitting cameras are actually less disruptive to game movements than passive, or non-transmitting card-based cameras, which require users to physically check on a fairly frequent basis.
Others claim that cameras are an ethical way to ensure hunters pursue mature animals that are past their reproductive prime. More hunters note that, given the spotty cell service in most areas of the rural West, transmitting trail cameras are non-functional and therefore not worthy of further discussion or distinction from non-transmitting cameras.
Then there’s the practical issue of whether cameras actually give hunters an unfair advantage. In an interview with Petersen’s Hunting, Moultrie Mobile Marketing Manager Mark Olis questioned whether transmitting game cameras give hunters an unethical opportunity to kill targeted animals.
“It’s not as simple as sitting around camp, getting a photo of an animal on your phone, and then walking over the hill to shoot it,” said Olis. “Wild animals don’t stand still. Images can take minutes to transfer to a cell phone and considerably longer in areas with poor cell coverage, if they even transmit at all.”
States handle the issue of cameras in various ways. Montana originally banned all cameras during active hunting seasons, but later amended the rule to apply to transmitting cameras. Utah’s Wildlife Board polled its constituents about a range of options that would outright ban all cameras during hunting seasons, would ban transmitting cameras on public land, or would ban the sale of images generated from remote cameras.
Specifically, the initial rule that the Wildlife Board requested input on regarded a proposal that would ban the use of transmitting trail cameras between July 31 and Jan. 31, which roughly corresponds to big-game seasons in the state. During that time frame, people would not be able to use trail cameras to “either locate or attempt to locate big game” but carved out allowances for people who use remote cameras to monitor trespassers or who are engaged in “active agricultural operations.”
More than 60 percent of some 6,000 Utah hunters surveyed about the trail-cam rules said they oppose the use of transmitting camera footage in real time during the hunting season. The board then voted to prohibit all trail cameras, including both transmitting and non-transmitting devices, for hunting purposes between July 31 and Dec. 31. It also placed prohibitions on the use of night-vision devices during hunting seasons.
Few states in the Midwest, South or East have any restrictions on trail cameras. Partly, that’s a product of relatively little public hunting land and abundant private land, where hunting methods tend to be fairly unfettered.
That brings us back to Missouri hunter Sid Camilo, who says he uses cameras more for management purposes than for hunting. “I think there’s a perception that trail cams are kill devices,” he notes. “I have cameras up 365 days a year, and I’ve learned more about deer and wildlife behavior through my cameras than any other way. They show me when deer are hitting various food sources, when they’re shedding antlers and when they’re fawning. Do I use them during hunting season? Absolutely. But to me, their biggest value is knowing how wildlife uses my land. If I lost that ability, I’d say I’d be losing 75 percent of my enjoyment as a deer hunter, which is seeing deer and all sorts of wildlife the rest of the year.”