At the risk of igniting “another classic ethics debate fueled by none other than MeatEater,” as one social media commenter recently lamented, I’d like to talk about the fair chase ramifications of wireless trail cameras.
What is ethical? What is moral? What is fair chase? This is a set of questions that each generation of hunters has had to wrestle with in their own way. We’re no different today.
The value of these conversations, I believe, is not in the pursuit of some arbitrary declaration of right or wrong, but in the deep thinking required by these debates. The simple act of questioning and thinking about the status quo is just as valuable, if not more so, than reaching any kind of referendum.
And so I bring up the question of the fair chase status of wireless trail cameras not because I want to impose a line in the sand, but because I want to encourage our community to at least give some thought to where those lines might exist for each of us individually.
Wireless trail cameras are quickly becoming ubiquitous in the hunting world and have provided a litany of benefits to hunters. But their popularization also raises serious questions about technology’s place in the future of hunting and how fair the chase really is.
Wireless trail cameras are rapidly growing in popularity across the country, and for good reason. They’re a tremendously useful tool. By having trail camera photos or videos sent to a hunter digitally it can allow someone who lives far away to monitor their distant property for trespassers or poachers, enjoy the excitement of a trail camera pull more often, and know their local wildlife in a new way.
Even for local hunters, wireless cameras can be game changers, as frequent checking of cameras by physically walking to them can be damaging to future hunting opportunities because of the disturbance. By having photos sent to a computer or phone, a hunter can enjoy the benefits of trail camera data without the risk of over-pressuring local wildlife.
Another obvious benefit to these cameras is the frequency and speed with which a hunter can learn from them. What good, in the short term, is a trail camera picture of a deer moving across your property if you don’t get to see the picture until two weeks later?
But it’s this real-time aspect of wireless trail cameras that’s also leading to questions about fair chase.
Imagine this scenario. A chocolate-antlered, 10-point buck steps into an emerald green field of clover to feed. A hunter, sitting in his home office not far away, sees the buck emerge on his computer screen where a live-stream video feed of the food plot plays 24/7. He jumps up, grabs a gun in and sneaks out towards the clover plot.
Or, what about this? It’s Nov. 15 and at 8:30 a.m. a mature buck starts working a scrape along a cut corn field. At that exact moment a notification rings on a hunter’s phone. He clicks the notification and up pops a photo of this buck, standing in front of a scrape that he knows is only 200 yards away. He climbs down out of his ladder stand and begins to stalk towards the scrape location.
Does any of this make you uncomfortable?
What if that last scenario played out exactly the same, except the photo wasn’t sent until that night, and the hunter couldn’t act on it until the next day. Would that make you feel any differently?
These scenarios are all possible with the technology available today inside wireless security and trail cameras. Each will likely inspire a different level of concern, or lack thereof, from each individual person confronted with them.
Where do we draw the line?
The Boone and Crockett Club, the organization responsible for first popularizing the concept of fair chase, defines it as “the ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging wild, big game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper or unfair advantage over the game animals.”
The crux of the wireless trail camera question, and future technology debates, lies with how we choose to define an “improper or unfair advantage over the game animals.”
Is a live feed unfair? Is a real-time photo that changes your hunting tactic at this very moment improper? Or, is the infiltration of further and further degrees of technology into hunting culture inevitable and simply to be accepted as progress?
Questions such as these have been debated ad nauseam in reference to other technologies such as long-range rifles, scent eliminating machines, high powered crossbows and so on. And all the above have inspired raucous debate with little to show for it when it comes to a clear consensus or ruling on what actually is fair chase.
Boone and Crockett’s fair chase statement goes on to say that the fair chase hunter “defines ‘unfair advantage’ as when the game does not have reasonable chance of escape,” and that he or she “uses technology in a way that does not diminish the importance of developing skills as a hunter or reduces hunting to just shooting.”
While none of this absolutely answers the question of whether wireless trail cameras provide a fair chase, I think these guidelines can provide a useful framework for thinking through this question and others. Does a technology maintain some semblance of a chance for the hunter to be bested? Does a technology still require from the hunter some degree of cunning, skill and effort?
Lines in the Sand
I use wireless trail cameras, and for many of the reasons I listed above, find great value in them. But scenarios like the previous examples shared, also give me cause for concern.
For me, the fair chase question becomes most glaring when it comes to how real-time information from wireless cameras is used and the disproportionate advantage it gives hunters over game animals. If a photo or video is sent and acted upon immediately, leading a hunter to know exactly where an animal is at a given moment, I sense that a line has been crossed. What chance does an animal have if its exact location is digitally transmitted and tracked? What skill does it require from a hunter other than checking a mobile app and shooting straight?
This is where I’ve chosen to drag my stick through the sand. To keep my use of wireless cameras in line with my definition of fair chase, when the option is available, I apply a setting to my cameras imposing a delay on photo or video transmission, ideally 24 hours, to ensure that I could never receive real-time data that might influence my hunting. For now, this is how I’m defining and attempting to achieve fair chase with wireless cameras.
I’m sure there are others who feel differently and it’s all but certain that the wireless trail camera debate will rage on, just as it has with so many other new tools in the hunting space. Rest assured, future technologies will raise similar questions. We’d do well to exercise the mental muscles necessary to consider issues such as this in preparation for what’s to come.