Montana hunters were surprised to open up the 2010 Hunting Regulations for Deer, Elk and Antelope and find a regulation that bans the use of game cameras during hunting season.
Perhaps more surprising is that the regulation isn’t new—though the buzz it’s creating on the Internet suggests a whole lot of hunters weren’t aware of it.
“We’ve had a law in place for 12 years that prohibits the use of scouting cameras during hunting season,” said Mike Korn, assistant chief of law enforcement for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP). “You can’t use a camera as an aid to hunting, and scouting is part of hunting.”
The Internet chatter centers around these questions: Montana FWP imposed this rule based on their view of hunting ethics—but even if game cameras do raise ethical questions, should they be debated by hunters around a campfire—or decided for us by a government agency? Should it really be a crime for a hunter on his own land to use a camera to help him select a spot to hunt?
In 1999, the Montana Legislature passed Bill 215, creating a new law addressing the use of game cameras for hunting purposes. Montana Code Annotated § 87-3-134 reads:
It is unlawful for a person, while hunting, to possess any electronic motion-tracking device or mechanism, as defined by Commission rule, that is designed to track the motion of a game animal and relay information on the animal’s movement to a hunter.
After passage of the law, the FWP Commission developed a regulation to carry out the law and specify which devices are prohibited. Originally the list was a long one, including remote operational cameras, seismic devices, electronic trip wires, laser devices used to activate tracking devices, thermal imaging devices and satellite ratio-telemetry tracking devices. (The law excludes radio-tracking collars attached to hunting dogs.)
In 2010 the commission simplified the regulation to help hunters better understand it:
It is illegal for a person to possess or use in the field any electronic or camera device whose purpose is to scout the location of game animals or relay the information on a game animal’s location or movement during any Commission adopted hunting season.
The regulation has raised more questions than it’s answered.
“I’ve been asked if it’s against the law for a guy to have a scouting camera sitting on the seat next to him in a vehicle,” said Korn. “We’re going to look at each situation on its own merits and go from there.”
Or what about a whitetail deer hunter who puts out a camera during antelope season—is that prohibited? According to FWP Communications Chief Ron Aasheim, the answer is no—probably.
“It’s a complicated process to determine when the regulation’s been violated,” noted Aasheim.
The Law’s Intent
Montana FWP officials believe the regulation is necessary to maintain ethical hunting practices in the Big Sky State.
“In the 1990s we began to have concerns that technology was taking the ethics out of hunting and damaging the spirit of fair chase,” explained Korn.
Some believe the regulation penalizes hunters with limited time and resources.
“People are very busy, and many don’t have a month to scout game before hunting season, said Bushnell trail camera manager Darin Stephens. “Cameras just help them to spend the time they do have more efficiently.”
Game-camera manufacturers haven’t voiced any opposition to the ban, but they wonder if the regulation goes too far.
“I can understand outlawing cameras that provide a live feed of images to a cell phone or other portable device, but most hunters don’t use cameras that way,” added Stephens. “They have to walk up to a camera, retrieve the memory card, and then wait to check the images until they get back home or back to the lodge.”
Stephens also points out that scouting cameras can actually aid law enforcement in catching poachers, thereby promoting ethical hunting practices. They also can be used to prevent other illegal activities and bring violators to justice.
“A few years ago, I had a ladder stand stolen off of my hunting property,” recalled Indiana whitetail hunter Glen Ransbottom. “My trail camera took a picture of the two guys walking away with the stand, and the picture was a key piece of evidence used to convict the guys.”
Others question the law’s legitimacy.
“I think it’s a bogus law,” said Rich Birdsell, co-owner of Northern Rockies Outfitters. “Cameras just allow you to see what animals you have in your area, just like using a good pair of binoculars to view game from far away.”
Trail Camera Benefits
There are many other uses for trail cameras not addressed by the regulation:
- Catching trespassers and reducing trespassing crimes, thereby protecting landowners’ rights.
- Helping farmers hunt predators like coyotes and mountain lions that are killing livestock.
- Aiding biologists in carrying out important scientific research. For example, many state biologists work with landowners who use trail cameras in an effort to get more accurate population figures for their management plans. “We’ve provided cameras to Ducks Unlimited to help them monitor predator activity and determine what’s causing declines in duck numbers in North and South Dakota,” explained Stephens.
- Increasing enjoyment of wildlife. Many like to view pictures of animals that we aren’t hunting but that live in the area. My family and I love to watch the progress beavers are making on building a dam on our hunting property.
The sticky point in all of this is: How does law enforcement decide who’s illegally using cameras for hunting and who’s using them for other purposes? Neither the law nor the 2010 regulation offer any guidance, leaving it up to the discretion of game wardens to make this important decision based on their own subjective reasoning.
“There’s no one answer, and every case has its own twists and turns,” Korn said.
The Montana Legislature, FWP and FWP Commission all believe that trail cameras give hunters an unfair advantage and therefore constitute an unethical hunting practice.
“Those are values that our commission chose to address,” said Aasheim. “We have a lot of people who believe that when you use cameras to know where the animals are, that it’s not hunting—it’s a blood sport.”
Some don’t believe trail cameras create unethical hunting opportunities.
“Trail cameras don’t give you an unfair advantage,” said Montanan Eric Albus, owner of Milk River Outfitters. “They just give you more hours in the day to scout.”
Perhaps most disturbing of all is that Montana officials have accepted the responsibility of deciding which hunting practices are ethical and which aren’t. Korn went so far as to say, “Most of our regulations deal with maintaining the ethical hunting of game.”
Obvious criminal activity aside—and despite the fact that Montana accepted public comment on the law before it went into effect—many hunters still question whether state wildlife agencies should be judging what’s ethical, especially to the extent of cameras that most states find perfectly acceptable. Instead of managing wildlife, Montana officials are micro-managing hunter behavior.
The impact of technology on hunting has led to many debates in the past. How many people considered the first repeating rifles to be “unethical” after years of percussions and flintlocks? Or range-finders, or compound bows, or dozens of other advances in equipment? But is it the responsibility of state wildlife agencies to give the nod to some hunting practices, and ban others?
“It bothers me we have more regulations and rules impacting our freedom as hunters,” said Albus.