Will Trail Cameras Be Outlawed?

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Properly placed trail cameras can provide a wealth of information for hunters, and plenty of enjoyment for wildlife watchers as well. (Photo by Steve Sorensen)

Contributing Writer
Steve Sorensen

Arizona recently banned trail cameras, and hunters across the nation wonder if a move is underway to end their use for scouting wild game. Why? Don’t let the words “ban” and “trail camera” cause you to jump to the conclusion that the Arizona Game and Fish Commission (AZGFD) opposes trail cameras on principle. As in most controversies, it’s not that simple.

Fair chase is one of the issues, but the AZGFD is not saying trail cameras fundamentally violate fair chase standards. The phrase “fair chase” is a subjective term, meaning different things in different places. The Commission voted 5-0 to ban trail cameras in Arizona because they violate fair chase standards for a reason unique to the Grand Canyon State.

Arizona is in the midst of a 20-year drought. Much of the state (57%) is public land. There are 3,100 water catchments in Arizona. The great majority are on public land, and they are all mapped. This means game animals are heavily concentrated near these water sources. Hunters can easily find them, so that’s where most hunters put their cameras. That creates some problems in Arizona which the ban aims to address.

This unnatural concentration of game animals near limited water sources means animals cannot avoid being detected by trail cameras. This gives hunters a significant and unnatural advantage. Banning trail cameras neutralizes that advantage.

A second issue has to do with sportsmanship. The concentration of trail cameras in those areas created conflict between hunters. Hunters often asked the Commission to arbitrate these conflicts.

To address that, Commission members considered mandating cameras be a certain distance from water sources. The idea was to create more room so people could place cameras farther apart, but such a regulation would be extremely difficult to enforce. They also debated a registration system, essentially licensing cameras for use, but that would come with administrative costs, and would not eliminate conflict. The ban reduces many clashes between hunters.

A third issue relates to the quality of the hunt. Trail cameras placed by both hunters and wildlife watchers caused a steep rise in human traffic in areas with water. The high level of human activity was reducing the quality of the hunt.

Hunters across the nation are wondering if other states will follow suit. That seems unlikely because Arizona is in a much different situation than other states, especially states here in the northeast where we get plenty of precipitation year ’round. Our droughts generally last only months, not years on end.

In an article in Field & Stream magazine Kurt Davis, Chair of the Arizona Game & Fish Commission, said, “If I live in Minnesota or Alabama, I wouldn’t even be having this discussion. But in an arid state with few reliable water sources, do cameras really allow an elk or deer a fair chance of escaping detection? We’ve tried to hone Arizona’s fair chase ethic, and we feel it’s an important piece of maintaining the state’s strong hunting tradition.”

From that statement I conclude that when the severe drought ends, the need “to hone Arizona’s fair chase ethic” would end because animals will more naturally disperse across the habitat. At that point whether the AZGFD will reconsider the ban remains to be seen.

Arizona’s action to ban trail cameras should not lead other states to similar bans — certainly not Pennsylvania or New York, or any other state with vastly different habitat and weather conditions. Other fair chase rules differ from state to state, so there’s no reason rules on trail cameras need to be the same everywhere.

So stop the rumor mill. State game agencies are not turning against hunters, and trail cameras are not on the way out.

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He writes for top outdoor magazines, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.