Stalked from the Skies

Do drones have a place in hunting?

As Dayglo-orange cloaked sportsmen head out into the woods for the fall hunting season, some may have a few new tools in their arsenal. In addition to calls, decoys, and scent eliminators, drones can now give hunters another edge over their prey.

No one knows when an unmanned drone first hovered above treetops, displaying a video feed of an unsuspecting mammal grazing to an off-site hunter. It is likely, however, that Louisiana Hog Control was among the early pioneers of this technology.

hunters pose with a drone and a dead hog in a truckPhoto courtesy Cy BrownCy Brown of Louisiana Hog Control and another hunter pose with the “dehogaflier” after an evening hunt. The pest control company of sorts helps landowners get rid of feral hogs on their property.

Faced with a hog overpopulation problem, the state of Louisiana deals with feral hogs like pests. According to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the disease-ridden, crop-damaging, rapidly proliferating hogs “are quickly becoming the most serious problem facing land managers and hunters in Louisiana.” As a result, the agency sets no limit to how many hogs a single sportsman can kill, and the animal may be hunted year round.

That’s where Louisiana Hog Control comes in. A pest control company of sorts, Louisiana Hog Control provides services to landowners with hogs on their properties, and operates under the motto, “We fly, pigs die.” The “fly” part, of course, refers to a drone — a very specialized drone, designed by Owner Cy Brown, dubbed the “dehogaflier.”

“Flying radio control aircraft was already a hobby of mine,” Brown says, “so it wasn’t a big leap to combine it with my hunting hobby.” He explains that due to Louisiana’s tall vegetation, it’s very difficult to spot hogs, forcing Brown and his team to squander hours wandering around in search of them.

Louisiana, like many states, prohibits hunting from, or with the aid of, aircraft (e.g. helicopters). so Brown obtained a special permit to operate the drone on private property. Brown’s dehogaflier received public attention when YouTube videos of its footage went viral in 2012 and 2013.

Shortly thereafter, on January 10, 2014, Colorado became the first state to explicitly ban the use of drones for hunting and fishing with strong support from the local sportsmen community. This new ban also prohibited the use of “Internet or other computer-assisted technology,” and required that hunters and anglers be physically present while hunting and fishing.

The ban, which was voted upon unanimously by the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife (CPW), didn’t materialize as a result of any documented evidence of Coloradans already using this technology for hunting, nor was it a reaction to the dehogaflier — though the videos were certainly on the agency’s radar. Rather, CPW decided to take action on the basis of a 2012 presentation from a Colorado State University professor that alerted the agency to the emerging issue of drone hunting.

Dehogaflier Night Vision Photo courtesy Cy BrownNight vision illuminates the dehogaflier alongside the station from which Brown and his team
would view its footage.

While many other state wildlife agencies felt their existing laws regarding aircraft — such as those in Louisiana — addressed the potential use of drones, Colorado wanted to get a little more specific.

“We felt that the existing laws as they relate to an aid to look for, scout, or detect wildlife for hunting or taking wildlife were inadequate,” says Bob Thompson, CPW’s lead wildlife investigator. CPW also worried that drones would be used to harass wildlife, and that the open, non-forested terrain of much of Colorado — and other Western states — would make it an especially friendly environment for drone-assisted scouting.

After Colorado enacted its ban, Montana followed suit just a month later. New Mexico instituted a ban this past June, and Alaska prohibited the use of scouting with drones in July. Most recently, in Michigan, a bill prohibiting the use of drones while hunting was sent to the senate on September 18. “Most other states are monitoring or in the process of implementing laws if current laws are not adequate,” Thompson says.

What places drones and hunting fundamentally at odds in the eyes of CPW and other agencies that have created legislation, is fair chase, a concept first developed and publicized by the founders of the Boone and Crockett Club, one of which was Theodore Roosevelt.

To Tim Rathgeber, a Colorado hunter, NRA recruiter, and CPW-sanctioned hunter education instructor, fair chase means leveling the playing field between hunter and prey. “Ethical hunters pursue animals fairly, and in doing so, we pursue them on foot,” Rathgeber says. “With more efficient tools, we abide by ethical standards to preserve the challenge of the hunt, avoiding the use of technology that would place the game at unfair disadvantage.”

Dehogaflier creator Brown sees it differently. In fact, he doesn’t believe the concept of fair chase is a legitimate one in the first place.

“You have to understand that hunting regulations are not intended to make it fair for the animals,” Brown says. “It hasn’t been fair since mankind learned to chip stone.” He points out a technology that does happen to be legal in most states: game cameras. Mounted in remote locations, these cameras snap photos of animal activity, and can be hooked up to mobile phones to inform the camera owner in real time.

But in Colorado and many other states, regulations are at least intended to make it more fair for the animals. For example, you can’t hunt from a motorized vehicle, use artificial light to aid in hunting, or communicate electronically with a hunting partner about the location of prey — all in the name of “fair chase.” However, other states view the concept of fair chase differently and “allow for baiting, party hunting, trapping, and the use of dogs,” according to CPW’s Thompson.

When the intent of wildlife agencies is to enforce fair chase, the question becomes about where the line is drawn. Brown believes that ultimately the onus is on each hunter to determine what the game population in question can support. In the case of unmanned aerial technology, Brown believes that, “a 24-hour period between aerial observation and shooting makes sense.” But feral hogs are not most cases. “Keep in mind, you can actually shoot feral hogs from a helicopter in Texas,” he adds.

The use of drones in hunting game isn’t the only application of this new technology that makes many uncomfortable. Conversely, animal rights organizations like PETA have used drones to scout hunters and interfere with their sport — a practice prohibited in Illinois. Military applications make many uncomfortable, and even retail shipping uses irk some. In June, the National Park Service enacted a temporary ban on drones until the agency can develop a more permanent policy. These are just a few examples of all types of legislation restricting or banning drone use, much of which is outlined on the website Drone Laws.

In the near future, at least, Thompson does anticipate that most states will follow in Colorado’s path and regulate drone use in hunting — until, that is, society dictates a necessity for change. “As certain species of wildlife become common enough to cause conflict with humans, it’s inevitable that humans will begin valuing them less,” Thompson says.

Presumably, drones represent only the tip of the technology iceberg. As more and more sophisticated drones and other hunting tools emerge in the future, wildlife management agencies will continue to be faced with the challenge of regulating their use in hunting, and preserving the fair chase doctrine.

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