Droning On About Hunting With Drones
November 15, 2013
They’re patrolling the borders. They’re patrolling the coastal waters (including search and rescue operations). They’re patrolling enemy-controlled territory in foreign lands, and occasionally blowing up “bad guys”. They’re swooping down canyons and along waterways looking for polluters, and hovering over feedlots and slaughterhouses looking for illegal discharges. They’re even flying around backyards, swimming pools, and neighborhoods…
At their core, they’re just remote-controlled aircraft. With the right technological upgrades, they can pretty much become a platform for anything, from research equipment, to cameras, to weapons. They’re also pretty easy to use (getting simpler all the time), and reasonably available to anyone with a few hundred extra bucks laying around. So it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that it was just a matter of time before hunters (and anti-hunters) figured out a use for them in the field.
Not too long ago, PETA announced that they would be using drones to spy on hunters, ostensibly to catch us breaking the law and behaving unethically. By and large, the threat carried little weight because most commercially available drones are limited in range and payload. In order to get close enough to actually spy on hunters, the activists would likely have to tresspass on private land, or they’d have to carry their gear into the backcountry. All the time, they’d be at risk of having an enraged hunter shoot their equipment out of the sky.
In fact, anti-hunting activists have experienced this sort of equipment loss at least twice while flying their cameras over a couple of pigeon shoots… one in South Carolina and another near Philadelphia. I have very little doubt that similar fates will result in any other drone observation of hunting activities. I can only hope that the anger and frustration will continue to be directed only at the mechanical devices, and not at the operators.
On the pro-hunting front, we haven’t really heard much about the actual use of drones. Some organizations, such as Orion, are already stepping out to the forefront of the issue, decrying their use and calling for legislation banning drones for hunting. It’s been a topic of conversation, mostly idle, in some of the hunting media as well. But for the most part, the conversation has been hypothetical or satirical, like this article from Wired magazine.
It’s not all theoretical though.
Sometime back in 2010 or 2011, a couple of engineers in Louisiana developed a drone with night vision video to use for hog depredation. By using the device to locate hogs, the men could then deploy to the field with rifles and thermal scopes and kill the hogs. It’s a great idea, particularly for depredation hunting where the traditional ethos of the sport hunter doesn’t really apply. In an interview, the engineers (who design this sort of technology for the US Air Force) said it wouldn’t be too tough to affix a firearm to the drone as well, but conceded the common sense reality that armed drones in the hands of civilians would probably not go over very well. The reality is, that even if something like this were developed, the law would almost certainly strike it down immediately… if for no other reason than general safety.
But the possibilities of drones, even if they’re not armed, raise concerns from hunting ethicists and others concerned about protecting the “image” of sportsmen. Using a drone to track down an animal and lead hunters to it, for example, would certainly conflict with most hunters’ concept of “fair chase”. Similar practices using manned aircraft are already illegal across the country (for example, you aren’t allowed to fly over and locate a herd of elk, and then direct hunters to them). A federal law, the Airborne Hunting Act prohibits hunters from hunting in an area within 48 hours of flying over it. This came about as a result of bush pilots locating game and then setting down close by to allow the hunters to go kill them. And of course this sort of thing absolutely conflicts with the traditionally presented ideals of fair chase and sportsmanship.
It’s all starting to come together now, with Colorado poised to become the first state to specifically prohibit the use of drones in the use of scouting, aiding, or taking of wildlife. There are questions about whether such a law is necessary, either because the practice is generally addressed by existing legislation, or because the reality of this type of activity on any large scale is highly unlikely. The law would be very difficult to enforce, but it would provide an additional penalty when perpetrators are caught.
Personally, I’m sort of ambivalent. I definitely see no problem using drones as one more tool in controlling problem wildlife. That’s not supposed to be “sporting.” And I can see legitimate hunting uses, such as mapping property and locating geographic features from the air. But the technology certainly presents a big opportunity for abuse.
Most of the time, when it comes to ethics I tend toward the laissez faire as long as the activity is safe, doesn’t endanger the resource, and doesn’t harm the habitat. But I do think you have to draw lines somewhere. In 2005, I drew that line (along with many other people) at Internet hunting. The more I think about it, the more I think I might have to draw another line at using drones to find and kill native game (I think exotics and invasives are a different story altogether).