If you live and hunt in the East, Midwest, or South, it’s easy to assume that Arizona’s recent trail-cam ban is a big-government overreaction to a non-issue. That was my initial take. After all, trail cameras have been a part of hunting for decades; their use is widespread and increasingly popular. And while there’s the occasional murmuring question about trail cams giving hunters an unfair edge, those queries come off as a little far fetched to many of us. If you live in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or Mississippi and you get a picture of a whitetail buck on your 80-acre farm, your camera probably revealed more about what you don’t know about the buck than what you just learned.
But it’s not like that in Arizona, according to Kurt Davis, chair for the five-member Game and Fish Commission that voted unanimously to ban trail cameras year-round and statewide—the country’s first full ban for hunters. In an interview with Field & Stream, as well as a written statement released after the vote, Davis, now in his 10th year on the Commission, said that a combination of factors led to his decision to support the ban. “Look,” he said to me over the phone, “you’re calling me from Minnesota, a water- and cover-rich state where we wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, even be discussing this issue. But here, it’s a different situation.”
The AZGF Commission Was Concerned About Increasing Conflicts Between Hunters Over Trail Cameras
Among Davis’s biggest concerns was an increase in the number of complaints concerning trail cams, which went from being a non-issue five years ago to becoming increasingly problematic. Unlike many states, Arizona has a growing hunter population, and they are in the midst of a historic 20-year drought that focuses game movement on water sources. “There are 3,100 water catchments in the state, the vast majority of which are on public land and all are mapped,” he said. “When people start placing and checking cameras on those limited water sources there are going to be conflicts.” There have been reports of as many as a dozen or more cameras on a single water hole.
Davis said the state’s conservation officers have noted an increase in reported hunter-on-hunter conflicts over camera placement. “As a commission, we also have to consider the quality of hunter’s time in the field,” he said. “We have multiple seasons in many units. If I’m a first-season archery elk hunter, and you’re a third-season rifle hunter who keeps checking his cameras, there’s a good chance you’re going to interfere with my hunt. And as the number of hunters increases in Arizona, the chances that a hunter or guide service will be servicing their cameras for a future hunt while you are on yours will greatly escalate, and it has been escalating for the past number of years”
Public-Land Lessees Have Also Complained About Trail Camera Users
Ranchers, who not only lease grazing rights on many public areas, but also build and maintain many of the catchments, were also registering more complaints about trail-camera users near water sources. “We partner with ranchers and those partnerships are important; the same water that benefits their cattle also benefits wildlife,” Davis said. “I have been contacted by numerous landowner/lessees about the increased traffic to their maintained water sources by those using cameras, and they are concerned about the impact on their infrastructure, roads, and their livestock’s ability to get to those water sources.”
Ultimately, the Commission Decided that Trail Cameras Violate Fair Chase and Threaten the Future of Our Sport
In the end, the question of fair chase was perhaps the biggest issue, and may explain why this is a statewide ban, and not just a public-land prohibition (although Davis did not address that specifically). “In an arid state with highly limited water sources, do cameras really allow an elk or deer a fair chance of escaping detection?” Davis asked. “We’ve tried to hone Arizona’s fair chase ethic and feel it’s an important piece of maintaining the state’s strong hunting tradition.
“We owe it to generations of thoughtful hunters, long before us, that we can even sit here today and contemplate the tools we use for hunting. The fact is, history has clearly demonstrated that hunters were first to see an emerging problem with the unregulated take and mismanagement of wildlife at rates that exceeded capacity, along with creating the gross monetization of that wildlife. Those hunters did not sit idly by, but instead because of their efforts we live at a time of great successes in conserving, protecting, and reintroducing countless species of wildlife.
Ultimately, Davis said the commission was trying to get ahead of a problem before it got out of hand. “Cameras are not only getting better, but cheaper,” he said. “We already have outfitters who are running 1,000 cameras, as well as companies that will place and maintain cameras for a hunter who doesn’t even have to check them. One of the things we try to do is look five or 10 years down the line and ask, ‘How do we maintain the quality of people’s time afield?’ This was a problem that was only going to get tougher.”
Are those reasons enough for a statewide, year-round ban on trail cameras for hunters? Well, not for the state’s trail-cam advocates, they aren’t, and we plan to cover their side of the story next. Meanwhile, although Davis did not entirely convince this dedicated trail-cam user from Minnesota that a full ban is the answer, he did open my eye to two things: Trail-cam use is, in fact, a different ball of wax in Arizona, and this story isn’t as simple as the big bad government agency sticking it to hunters. They’ve got serious issues to work out, and this latest ruling is probably not the end of it.