It is safe to say the use of drones continues to expand, and these little quadcopters are not going away soon. The accessibility of these devices is easier than ever thanks to low prices and the fact they are sold to hobbyists almost everywhere. Nowadays, almost anyone can own one of these aerial vehicles and get a bird's-eye-view of their neighborhood and other surroundings. That includes people who go deer scouting with drones. You have probably at least thought about using drones to scout your hunting area. After all, a live video feed from the air is a great way to spot bedding areas, scrapes, and sometimes even the deer themselves. Hunting deer and other big game with drones is not legal in many areas. There are ethical questions involved.
Know Your Drone Laws
Many states have addressed the use of drones during hunting season. States like Alaska, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming have prohibited the use of drones during hunting season. Especially when drone operators locate and hunt animals with drones. Most states have now put in rules that prohibit the use of drones.
When you start talking about UAVs for scouting purposes, things get a bit complicated. Wyoming made it illegal to scout or use a drone for aid in taking game from August 1 through January 31, effectively covering the whole season.
Some state laws allow deer scouting with drones, while other states do not. Thankfully, most have cleared up any grey areas in their regulations. Colorado Parks and Wildlife, for instance, clarified things a bit in a blog post on their website with a statement from Heather Dugan, their Law Enforcement and Public Safety Assistant Director.
"The bottom line is, if it's related to a hunt in any way, you can't do it," Dugan said. "For scouting, locating, anything. If they fly before they take an animal, they're illegal. If they use the drone to locate an animal they may have shot and wounded, they're illegal."
With more and more hunters making use of aircraft for filming their hunts, even videoing the hunting grounds can get you in trouble in some instances. A piece on the Alaska Fish and Game's website reports you cannot even shoot "B-roll" footage until you've completed the hunt.
That is on top of federal regulations from the FAA, which has strict rules about flying drones within line of sight, and away from busy airports and controlled airspace. Some of which may fall on your hunting land. The good news is that some states have also enacted laws making it illegal to harass hunters with a drone. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is just one agency with directions on this. So, if you're getting buzzed on your whitetail hunt in the Great Lakes state, you can report the incident, and the operator can likely get cited for ruining your hunt.
Deer Scouting With Drones Ethics
The ethics of using unmanned aircraft systems for scouting or directly hunting animals are still hotly debated. Fair chase advocates and record-keeping clubs Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young have both come out against using drones in the last few years. For scouting OR hunting purposes. The two organizations need to distinguish between the two.
In the case of Boone and Crockett, their decision in 2014 notes that the organization first banned the use of aircraft for spotting or herding big game animals from the air back in the 1960s. The organization does not make exceptions for deer scouting with drones either.
"Trophies scouted or taken with the assistance of drones/unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are not eligible for entry in Boone and Crockett records," their website states.
There is still a lot of grey area that needs addressing. For instance, in an experiment in my backyard, I found it possible to spot a shed antler using my little DJI drone. The device's HD camera, WiFi, and stabilization system use a sophisticated 3-axis gimbal allowing the aircraft to feed me detailed images of the ground to my phone in real-time.
I have yet to find a shed using my drone. But would B&C or P&Y deny an entry if a hunter later shot a buck in October or November that he found a shed with a drone in the off-season in February or March? Or if the hunter saw a pinch point or a bedding area they previously did not know about? My drone only gives me about 10 minutes of flight time. So I'm not sure it provides any more advantage than a trail camera being strapped to a tree monitoring a field.
Many states would also not allow you to use a drone to try and locate a downed game that you are having a hard time finding. I find this fact extremely interesting. I could argue that it is unethical not to use every tool at your disposal to recover an animal you have shot, drones included.
Interestingly, the International Game Fish Association has no issues with anglers using a big DJI Phantom to bait schools of fish offshore from the beach. Why is one okay and not the other?
For the record, I am not saying one or both are right or wrong. However, it does raise an interesting discussion worthy of debate for hunters and anglers. As technology continues to advance and hunting tactics evolve, we must ask ourselves more and more questions about how and why we hunt. That includes deer scouting with drones. Our society is still reckoning with new ethics about drone technology across different cultures. It's up to us, as hunters, to not only keep up with the changes but to always actively consider our ethical roles.
This article was originally published on February 16, 2022.
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