By Alison Perkins
While civil rights advocates fight government spying in Washington, D.C., Montana is cracking down on snooping that occurs on our public lands.
Placed along game trails or at wildlife crossings, motion-activated cameras can be used by anyone to spy on unsuspecting wildlife. They document how wildlife crosses highways, help wildlife managers identify problem bears, and provide a glimpse of the animals in our own backyards. They help conservation groups understand barriers to game movements, but they can’t be used to help hunters.
Ryan Chapin, board member of Hellgate Hunters & Anglers, is an avid wildlife camera user and hunter. During most of the year, his wildlife cameras are another way for him and his family to connect with nature. “Setting out cameras is fun to do, to see what’s out there. It’s like opening a Christmas package,” he said.
During commissioned hunting seasons, however, technology has the potential to change concepts about fair chase.
Montana’s Hunter Safety Education Course states “fair chase means balancing the skills and equipment of the hunter with the abilities of the animal to escape.”
Montana has some of the strictest laws in the country when it comes to using technology during the hunt. Developed in the late 1990s, then clarified with even stronger language in 2010, the rules prevent the use of any electronic devices to scout or take game, including radios, cellphones, and wildlife cameras.
“Figuring out if elk are in an area or not, that’s the challenge of elk hunting,” Chapin said.
A camera that automatically alerts a hunter to the presence of game via a smartphone app gives an unfair advantage to the hunter.
Mike Korn, assistant chief of enforcement for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, maintains that defining fair chase is an important question to ask.
“Where does the sport of hunting end and technology take over? Where does the reliance on the person that is hunting end, and it just becomes a whiz-bang video game?”
In 2005, a ranch owner in Texas developed the concept of Internet hunting — remotely controlled hunting using online webcams. Originally offered to provide opportunities for disabled hunters, Internet hunting would allow shooters to take game animals without leaving their couch. (This form of hunting was not well received by the public, however, and has quietly faded away.)
As technology marches on, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission has become more and more concerned about both hunter ethics and devices that could overwhelm the sport. In 2014, it may consider new language that makes the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) unlawful for hunting. In this evolutionary arms race, the advantage may go to the spies.
Alison Perkins is an adjunct professor at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism. She serves as principle investigator for Science Source, a grant from the National Science Foundation to provide environmental science news to local audiences.
Photos by Zack Boughton