What's the Future of Trail Cameras in the West?

What's the Future of Trail Cameras in the West?

Big changes are on the horizon for trail camera use in the state of Utah, following similar, recent bans in Arizona and Nevada.

In an early January decision that divided the state’s hunting community, the Utah Wildlife Board voted to prohibit the use of all trail cameras during fall big game seasons.

Utah's new regulations, which extend to both private and public land from July 31 to Dec. 31, came on the heels of a long-running and contentious debate about the ethics of remote photography in the Beehive State and other parts of the West. Trail cameras are not being questioned as widely in other regions of the country.

Board members arrived at the 4-3 decision after a survey issued by the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources polled thousands of Utah license holders. Among other topics, it asked respondents to indicate support for or opposition to rule changes that would prohibit trail cameras during a specific time of year.

One section of the survey asked hunters if they would support a trail camera rule similar to the one already in place in Nevada. Nevada prohibits the use of trail cameras on public land (the state is nearly 90% public) from Aug. 1 to Dec. 31 of each year.

“In the survey, 49.6% supported implementing Nevada-style regs, 10% percent said they didn’t care, and the balance of 39.5% was opposed,” Utah State Representative Casey Snider told MeatEater.

Snider was the lead sponsor of HB 295, which passed the Utah State Legislature in the spring of 2021. That bill required the Utah Wildlife Board to make changes around trail camera use and regulations. It also banned baiting for big game.

According to Snider, Utah’s desert landscape and arid climate create a somewhat unique situation that makes trail camera use problematic.

“I’m in a limited-entry unit where I live,” he said. “There’s hardly a wallow or a spring that doesn’t have at least one camera on it, and the ones that are more well known have piles of cameras.”

A lifelong hunter who also led a recent charge to establish a constitutional right to hunt and fish in Utah, Snider is outspoken about his belief that trail cameras have gotten out of hand in his home state. In a landscape with finite water sources, there seems to be several cameras trained on every spring and guzzler–with people going in and out to check them regularly.

He says that while trail cameras have been a divisive and uncomfortable issue, most of the opposition to new regulations is coming from the state’s guiding and outfitting community.

“The regular Joe is upset, but not the majority of regular people,” Snider said. “The ones that are super wound up are the folks who think this is going to impact their bottom line. I just don’t have sympathy for that. I think this is the public’s wildlife.”

Snider believes that certain guides and outfitters in Utah may be violating fair chase ethics with their exorbitant trail camera tactics.

“You’ve got individuals, largely in the guiding and outfitting community, that are running hundreds of cameras or purchasing images on thousands of cameras,” he said. “They literally have the ability to say, here’s the animal, we know where he’s gonna be, so we put the guy in place and we pull the trigger. Those are the bad actors who have created this entire conflict.”

Not Alone Other arid states in the desert Southwest have faced similar challenges. The Arizona Game and Fish Commission voted unanimously to approve a year-round prohibition on trail cameras in July 2021, while Nevada implemented its seasonal regulations back in 2018. As Snider alludes, the Nevada regulations closely guided the rules now in place in Utah.

Utah’s new regulations also ban the use of night vision devices that employ thermal imaging and infrared technology for hunting.

“The technology for that stuff is out there right now, and I believe that it’s at a price point where it’s almost affordable,” Snider said. “Some of that infrared stuff makes cameras look like nothing because you can look at a hillside through thermal imaging and see through cover. I mean, the deer and elk are not al Qaeda. Let’s give 'em a chance.”

Pros and Cons MeatEater’s Director of Conservation Ryan Callaghan says that recent efforts to regulate trail cameras in Utah and other Western states present a tricky conundrum.

“I think there’s some very clear, beneficial uses to trail cameras,” Cal said. “I think there’s a really strong argument to be made that it’s a great way to get the kids and the whole family outside and invested in the outdoors.”

He points out that state wildlife agencies also benefit from trail camera technology.

“There’s a huge benefit to state agencies, even when that comes from the citizen science side of things,” Cal said. “There’s been a lot of trail cam data in the last 10 years that individuals have reached out with, whether it’s documenting how far juvenile mountain lions are traveling or these young male wolves are traveling, and that’s just from a citizen science standpoint. The ability of our wildlife agencies to set up a remote camera trap at relatively low cost is huge, and those are all extreme positives.”

The Utah trail camera ban exempts government agencies and educational organizations but does not have a carve out for the type of citizen science that Cal is referring to.

From a hunting standpoint, however, Cal says he is not opposed to the new rules in Utah.

“My personal take on trail cameras is it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest if they went away,” he said. “I’m not going to go to bat for trail cameras. It’s a weird deal. I don’t use them. I’m never in a spot where I’m like, ‘If only I could get a dozen trail cameras out here.’”

For Cal, another ethical concern is the practice of guides, outfitters, or professional scouts selling or marketing photos of an individual animal to prospective clients.

In Utah, it was once possible to purchase images and location data for a particular trophy-class animal on the internet. Such time-sensitive information about an individual animal’s characteristics and whereabouts gives hunters with enough disposable cash an unfair advantage, Cal said.

“There’s this very real monetization of wildlife where guides and outfitters can sell images or data pertaining to an individual animal,” he said. “They’d say that they’re selling the opportunity to harvest that animal, not the animal itself. But we know that the general public, which is not deep into the world of trophy hunting, doesn’t find that palatable.”

The new rules in Utah prohibit “the sale or purchase of trail camera footage or data to take or aid in the take of big game.”

Some Utah hunters who oppose the state’s new trail camera rule worry that it could lead down a slippery slope toward future bans on critical hunting technology.

Casey Butler is a founder of HUSH, a Utah-based hunting lifestyle brand and media company. In a recent episode of the HUSHLIFE Podcast, Butler voiced concerns about the impending trail camera ban.

“I think what gets a lot of guys scared anytime anything gets taken away is what’s next? Ninety nine point nine percent of the animals I’ve killed are because of these right here,” he said, holding up a pair of binoculars. “This is technology that has taken us to a new place. Are optics next? Why are optics any different than a trail camera?”

The Future of Trail Cam Technology in the West Utah, Arizona, and Nevada aren’t alone in implementing recent changes to trail camera regulations, but other bans target “live-action” or “transmitting” cameras only. These cameras provide users with real-time photos of anything that triggers their motion sensors, often sending images directly to the user’s smartphone.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks recently walked back a seasonal prohibition of all trail cameras in favor of a rule that bans “cameras or video devices capable of transmitting real-time information, pictures or videos.” Colorado Parks & Wildlife “prohibits the use of trail cameras that use the internet or other computer-assisted remote technology while hunting or fishing.” In 2018, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission addressed the issue as well, recommending a ban on “real-time trail cameras” from Aug. 1 to Dec. 31.

In New Mexico, transmitting cameras were banned statewide in November of 2018, but more traditional trail cameras that require hunters to physically remove a memory card in order to retrieve photo data remain legal.

Jesse Duebel, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, says that while New Mexico has a similarly arid climate, the state has not seen the same type of camera proliferation around critical water sources that’s so often cited by hunters in Utah and Arizona.

“We’re an arid state and you’d think you would go to a water hole and see 15 to 20 cameras, but that just doesn’t seem to be the case,” Duebel told MeatEater. “I wouldn’t doubt that that controversy gets to New Mexico at some point in the future, but it’s not currently being discussed very much.”

It remains to be seen whether the trend toward regulating trail cameras in the West will continue or end with the recent rule changes in Utah, but some people speculate that drought and rapidly growing numbers of hunters afield may only serve to exacerbate the problems that cameras sometimes create. Remote photography is not as widely debated in the East, South, and Midwest, where tags come over the counter, water is plentiful, and private lands dominate most landscapes.

For his part, Rep. Snider says he doesn't like to see infighting within the hunting community. But he stands behind his proposals, despite the divisiveness they’ve generated.

“I don’t like hunter-on-hunter conflict,” he said. “But I fundamentally believe that we have to do something here. I think that the wildlife that we all use in whatever way deserves that level of dignity.”

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