Recently drones have appeared on the radar of conservation officers, hunters’ groups and wildlife activists as something which can be used to assist in the tracking of game, especially small drones with thermal cameras. The drone can be used to locate the animal and information is visually or otherwise relayed to the hunter who can approach it and try to get in position for a kill. Drones could also be weaponized themselves, but that’s not something I’m going to discuss here because it has legitimate concerns relating to public safety and indiscriminate or non-targeted killing of animals. And who is responsible if something goes wrong, the manufacturer, the pilot or the owner? Let’s stick to discussing scouting and spotting for now.
Depending on who you talk to, they have different reasons, but all three interest groups listed above have a general distaste for the use of drones in hunting and all have contributed to laws in Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, and Wisconsin among other states and provinces which outlaw hunting with the assistance of drones. Some animal rights activists oppose anything which may assist hunters in taking an animal’s life, so they naturally oppose drones used for hunting, but they do use drones to monitor hunters. Some hunters’ groups, many of whom who see hunting as a sport rather than as a survival skill, have traditions and standards they would like to see everyone adopt. These groups oppose hunting with drones because it violates the spirit of “fair chase” and in their view, reflects poorly on the hunter’s skills.
Conservation officers make their enforcement decisions based on what is enshrined in law, and law is supposed to be based on biological research conducted by wildlife scientists that outlines what the carrying capacity of a certain habitat is, how many animals will be lost to starvation, disease etc. and make recommendations on what the seasonal and bag limits should be for hunters. Most conservation authorities around the world support managed hunting as a valid conservation strategy. It is now well known that drones are a very effective tool to monitor conservation efforts and also to conduct wildlife surveys.
The aforementioned states have enacted anti-drone laws mostly under the precept of “fair chase” instead of any other reason. There is unfortunately not enough data on the effects of hunting with drones for biologists and scientists to weigh in. “Fair chase” is a nebulous concept which has no clear definition. Certainly there is no fair way to kill an animal, nor is nature intended to be fair; only sustainable. Looking at quotes from lawmakers and hunters, “fair chase” could be defined variously as:
- not “guaranteeing” a hunt’s success (the Yukon Hunter Education and Ethics Development (HEED) course mentions this)
- “it’s not fair for the animals that deserve a chance to escape”
- “hunting should remain an activity of skill and woodcraft, not just technology”
I will discuss the validity of each of these arguments and how they apply to the legality of drones used in hunting. But first, I will make a general point about all three arguments; the reasons why these things (animals need a chance to escape, hunting should be about skill, etc.) are important is not dissected or analyzed in any sort of detail by the people promoting these arguments. This strongly suggests that it is a form of conservative doctrine rather than a law based on actual harm done.
If we are discussing actual conservation issues rather than conservative “values” about what a hunt should be, #1 is a questionable conservation strategy. The success rate of a hunt or hunter is highly variable and over-setting seasonal limits with an expectation of incomplete fulfillment is not likely to correlate with a reliable number of harvested animals that season. It is better to set the bag, tag, and seasonal limits in a way that complete fulfillment is the target, but with an expected variance that does not negatively impact the conservation effort at either extreme, and then allow the hunter to use all technology available to him or her to fulfill their tag or hunt up to the appropriate legal limit provided they follow all other hunting laws. If previously hunters had an 80% fulfillment rate, but after widespread adoption of small thermal electric drones this jumped to 90%, the seasonal limits could be reduced accordingly. This is not a serious problem nor a valid justification to ban drones as hunting aids. In fact, if drones really do make hunting more successful on average, this would reduce the variance and allow more accurate conservation decisions to be made.
#2 is an often-quoted reason for banning drones by hunters and lawmakers who support the “sport” of hunting. Anyone should start at hearing that sentence “animals should have a chance to escape”, because it’s hypocritical. These words are coming from hunters who track animals with binoculars and high-powered rifles. If you want to make this argument and position yourself as someone who doesn’t believe animals should be hunted successfully, then why do you practice your marksmanship before going out to hunt? As I will discuss later, there is a near-infinite amount of technology we deploy daily against animals both when hunting and when farming, and not just the obvious ones like guns, bows, shock prods and fishing rods.
The counter-argument is that allowing some animals to escape will promote natural selection. In this theory, the animal with the most speed, awareness, intelligence and intuition is more likely to avoid a hunter than a less capable animal and it will propagate and improve the virility of the species, so it is important to ensure a chance of escape to make sure humans are not simply selecting the survivors by which animal we spot first or decide to kill first. But this is a nostalgic view of natural selection. Natural selection is no longer even prevalent in humans in this manner. We are selected by nature to be most effective in the modern world, one where the threats come from bullets, bombs, knives, motor vehicles, cancer and heart disease rather than ferocious wild animals. Modern soldiers require above all else cardiovascular fitness, intelligence, and training in tactics and the use of communications equipment and rifles instead of brute strength. Females are increasingly taking jobs as police officers and soldiers, something that would have been unfathomable when we swung clubs at each other but is very apt today when skill and intellect has largely replaced brute strength as desirable soldierly qualities. Likewise, a sought-after breeding partner in today’s world may not have bulging muscles so much as a bulging wallet. And part of that natural selection that we ourselves now experience especially in war zones like Syria includes hiding from aircraft and drones, whether they are carrying bombs or simply visible and/or thermal-spectrum surveillance equipment. The argument that we should avoid using drones to hunt because it doesn’t promote natural selection is unjustifiable. Artificially trying to force animals to adopt antiquated defenses to hazards that no longer exist is not helpful to the species when we do one day apply the full brunt of technology against them.
#3 (the argument that hunting should remain a “activity of skill and woodcraft”) is another hypocritical argument based on prejudices and subjective opinions on what a “real hunt” is, or what skills should be involved in an activity to characterize it as difficult. (Certainly, flying a drone in the wilderness is not without difficulty.) This is another argument against drones favored by many sport hunters. It was the subject of an American Dad episode. But it’s a silly reason to ban drones. There is no part of human life or activity that is not infiltrated by technology and no moral high ground to claim here. Sport hunters tend to look down upon other hunters for using certain technologies when hunting (think of the insufferable re-curve bow hunter who “refuses” to use a compound bow and has to tell everyone about why), while simultaneously dismissing the vast, incredible array of technologies they bring to bear on every hunt. This includes, among countless others:
- Guns: Obvious. Makes hunting 1000x easier.
- Bow and arrow: Without this, we’d be chasing down only slow animals, throwing rocks at them, or tracking them for days until they expire from exhaustion then killing them with a spear.
- Stainless steel knife: Other than this we’d just have our teeth to kill it and cut into the hide and meat. Parasites living in the fur would kill us much more often.
- Scent control products: My personal least-favorite hunting aid, as I believe the sprays and some of the manufacturing processes for scentless clothing probably affect the environment. Certainly a very advantageous technology that no animal has ever had access to to survive.
- Camouflage clothing: This is not always as effective as many hunters think and is often more of a fashion statement. Most game animals (deer, squirrels, rabbits) are dichromatic meaning they cannot determine red from green (like some humans). The differing lightness on camo patches may be an advantage, since animals can probably detect dark from light materials. Modern “digital camo” patterns like those used by militaries are also effective on animals because the fractal nature of the pattern works as a camouflage at several different scales. But the “woodland camo” look is only really effective against humans.
- Transportation vehicles: Includes ATVs, trucks, snowmobiles, even hand carried sleds and paddle boats are a form of technology. Anything that helps you travel a long distance, and pack out meat from a long way in the bush, is a major advantage that makes hunting easier. One of the saddest things I see often in wilderness areas, combustion vehicles are almost always used on a hunt even when not necessary. Trucks and ATVs have an enormous negative impact on the environment through emissions, crushing plants and the destruction of habitat for roads. Not to mention an incredible negative impact on us health-wise if we overuse them instead of our legs.
- Clothing in general: Without this, humans would be restricted to small bands near the equator. We would never have been able to travel to hunt in temperate or polar regions. Furred animals would dominate these areas. Also, boots allow us to trample through thorns, jeans and Kevlar pants stop brambles from hurting us, and chest waders allow us to walk in rivers we’d usually freeze to death in. Animals must keep themselves warm by drying themselves after crossing a river by shaking their fur.
- Fishing rods: Obvious. Try catching a fish with your hands for a challenge.
- Medical care: A bear or cougar could easily kill a human and both do eat meat. They don’t usually go after us because even if they win, a strong kick from one of us could break a forearm or hand and this would effectively kill them due to inability to hunt and sepsis. They play it safe and target smaller animals. If we didn’t have medical care, we might be a lot more careful about how far out we travel and how many risks we take to come home with a successful kill. Hunters take this for granted.
- Radio and other communication devices: Not only does this increase the speed at which we can get ourselves medical care, but it allows teams of hunters to much more easily and effectively communicate over long distances when flushing an animal into the way of waiting hunters. This makes hunting easier. Wolves do not have this leisure when pack hunting.
- Agriculture and food production: Because we’re not starving, we can wait a lot longer in a blind.
“Damn, this rifle is heavy, and after my shoulders were already sore from setting up that blind. I think one of those brambles may have got stuck into the outermost layer of my Kevlar pants. I’m running low on energy, better grab some of that high-efficiency glucose gel … Hey, what are you doing? GET THAT DRONE OUT OF HERE! DON’T YOU HAVE ANY RESPECT FOR THE HUNT?!?!?!”
Beyond the obvious hypocrisy, all the arguments made by sport hunters are purely egoic and an attempt to position oneself above another person by claiming a higher difficulty inherent in what you do compared to others. The anti-drone laws have nothing to do with respect for the animal, respect for nature, conservation management or anything else. Taking an animal quickly and cleanly using advanced technology is not disrespectful to it, if you use all the meat and take only what you need.
Intelligent and forward-thinking people have routinely risen above these petty arguments over what constitutes a “real hunt” when managing conservation. The Kluane First Nation, whose traditional territory includes much of modern day Kluane National Park in northwestern Canada, have the exclusive right to hunt within much of the national park while other Canadians do not. But instead of attempting to force these people to use the traditional hunting methods they had before Europeans arrived, the agreement with Canada permitted them to use anything they choose like guns and ATVs. This is because it’s not about forcing beliefs on them on what it means to be a “real hunter”, but a simple land rights issue since their claim to the land predates that of Canada Parks. A picture near the Kluane Park office shows somber First Nations people with rifles resting on an ATV, looking for game.
But the hunters who are most critical of drones and most fiercely protective of their version of the “sport” of hunting are often the same ones that are completely uncaring about the environment and other people. They leave massive trucks idling unnecessarily in the forest or in cities. They are part of advocacy groups that demand the right to drive their plant-and-living-soil-crushing ATVs anywhere they want in protected wilderness areas. They shoot at drones belonging to animal rights activists. When any of this is discussed with them they get angry and pretend to be the victim and even sometimes threaten people.
Hunting with an electrically powered drone doesn’t cause environmental damage like a snowmobile’s exhaust, doesn’t crush plants and soil like an ATV, doesn’t pollute the streams and rivers like some chemical products, and doesn’t kill indiscriminately like using a fishing net, explosives, or poisons. (If you leave or lose your drone in the forest, lithium batteries in drones are almost certainly very toxic to the environment unless contained, as well as the lead some companies use in their electronics. Buy a drone that you can track electronically if it goes down.) You can recharge your hunting drone using a portable solar power pack, or another battery pack charged by renewable energy from home, instead of a gas or diesel generator. Having a much smaller drone helps you do this since the total battery capacity is less and you’ll have less to carry (hopefully in your backpack instead of your truck). And while some may think a drone is noisy and affects wildlife, it has absolutely nothing on the world-destroying noise an ATV, snowmobile, truck, or helicopter makes. In fact, NASA has now developed distributed propulsion systems which quieten drones.
There’s no legitimate reason for drones to be banned as hunting aids, or in hunting areas like National Forests. Their use isn’t going to affect a well-managed conservation strategy, they don’t cause damage to the environment unlike many other things people use when hunting, and they don’t cause the hunter to respect wildlife less since that is up to the individual hunter. Small drones don’t pose a significant threat to human safety, like larger motorized vehicles do. We now have scientific evidence that people living near busy roads are 7% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s (although the exact cause is still not determined).
And hunting shouldn’t be a “sport” with arbitrary rules made up by conservative special interest groups that everyone is forced to abide by, it’s a survival skill and a means to eat that should only be regulated by scientific understanding of biological populations and enforced by conservation officers to prevent damage to the ecosystem and give everyone a chance to enjoy nature’s bounty. If you’re not comfortable using drones to hunt, then that’s your prerogative, but don’t force your beliefs on others simply because you’re afraid of something new that you don’t understand.