Pull quote: “The three things we always look into is the safety of the hunter, the preservation of wildlife and the tenants of fair chase. There’s the potential for drones to violate all three.”
Early in the morning, a buck grazes on a grassy hillside, dew gathering on his antlers. It’s a scene so picturesque, you can almost hear soft music swelling behind it. Then, the soft buzzing noise of fans.
A small drone, mounted with a GoPro camera, zips high above the hillside. Moments later, a short whine of truck brakes sounds in the distance, and a hunter dutifully dawdles into view. He takes a shot from 100 yards, tags and guts, and is done in less than an hour.
This scene had become more and more common as, before this year, hunters increasingly turned to affordable drones to aid their hunting efforts. But in January, Colorado moved to ban drone-aided hunting. The Centennial State was the first in the nation to ban the flying cameras, citing a desire of fair-chase hunting, especially on public lands.
“I don’t know about other states, but I do know that in Colorado, we took the action to eliminate hunting behavior that could be deemed unsporting or unethical,” says Colorado Parks and Wildlife public information officer Mike Porras. “The three things we always look into is the safety of the hunter, the preservation of wildlife and the tenants of fair chase. There’s the potential for drones to violate all three.”
Most hunting regulation is reactionary. Everything is legal until it isn’t. Porras cites an incident of a hunter killing a bear in its den as an unethical situation to which the state had to react.
It was the same with drones, where the technology quickly revealed the need for regulation. Months after Colorado banned the devices, a handful of states followed suit. Alaska, Montana, Idaho and Wisconsin have banned the use of drones and other “small aircraft” while hunting. Hunting groups in Wyoming, New Mexico and Vermont have also pushed to prohibit the use of drones. It’s a movement that is spreading quickly.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is an advocacy group for the responsible use of public lands, whose official stance on drone hunting reads: “Backcountry Hunters and Anglers believes this technology represents a widespread opportunity for abuse, and if not regulated early poses a significant threat to fair chase hunting and fair distribution of hunting opportunity.”
There’s also questions on whether the Federal Aviation Administration will institute a ban on private drone use, regardless of application. Currently, the FAA does not classify personal drones operated under 500 feet as “aircraft,” and as such, there’s no widespread ban or heavy regulation on their use.
There also are concerns, as drone technology improves, that hunters will attempt to mount small firearms on a drone. Bloggers at Dangerous Information built a small drone armed with a paintball gun that could remotely hit targets with surprising accuracy.
Porras says although no cases of that have been documented in Colorado, it’s a real concern. “In this particular instance, technology is advancing at a rate where hunters could take a number of unfair advantages that cross that line of fair chance,” he says.