“I do not pretend to know what is moderation, or where the line is between legitimate and illegitimate gadgets … I use many factory-made gadgets myself. Yet there must be some limit beyond which money-bought aids to sport destroy the cultural value of sport.” — Aldo Leopold, Wildlife in American Culture, 1943.
In addition to being a hunter, Aldo Leopold was one of America’s greatest conservationists, a champion of wild places and wild things. I was thinking about Leopold, and wild places, when I was reading through the 2016-17 Arizona Hunting Regulation booklet and saw this, on page 3: “Drones are considered aircraft and shall not be used to harass wildlife or assist in the taking of wildlife. For more, see Fair Chase information on page 56.”
I guess I should not be surprised that it has come to this. Since the beginning of time man has used his brain to try and figure out ways to make killing animals easier; scouting from the air is simply a natural progression of that. For example, in Alaska, where I lived for 15 years, the Piper Super Cub is a mainstay of hunters who use it to both locate game and transport them to remote locations. However, it is illegal in Alaska to hunt the same day you fly.
Hunters throughout the West routinely use small aircraft to scout prior to the opening of hunting season, though there are limitations on how close to the season you can scout from the air. And the Federal Airborne Hunting Act prohibits tracking and shooting game from the air.
There have been abuses. More than one person has been a convicted of violating Alaska’s same-day airborne law. In recent years in the lower 48 states ultralight aircraft — which are relatively inexpensive, fly very low and very slow and have become popular with drug smugglers in the Southwest — have been used by a handful of less-than-ethical hunters to give them advantage in locating mule deer, elk and other western big game. But unmanned drones?
Drones are everywhere. We all know how unmanned Predator and Reaper drones have changed the face of modern warfare. On a smaller scale they are being used in police work, farming, real estate marketing, wildlife research, highway monitoring — and government surveillance. Some companies are even now using them for package delivery. And, of course, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has been using drones to video hunters so they can “keep them honest.” (Such use has been ruled hunter harassment, and thus illegal, in most places.)
Modern drone technology has come a long way. It won’t be long before miniature-esque drones smaller than the size of remote-controlled model aircraft are fitted with high-quality cameras and wireless transmitters and send images instantly to your smartphone or tablet will have have a relatively inexpensive price tag. Technology will simply follow the cost curve of laptop computers, calculators and HD Televisions until drones become relatively affordable for the Average Joe. In fact, it’s already happening.
But should this rapidly advancing technology be made legal for sport hunting?
For me, the answer is a resounding “No.” Like Leopold 70-some years ago, I wonder what has happened to woodsmanship? What has happened to hunters wanting to learn the lay of the land, the habits of their quarry, the skills required to consistently sneak in close enough for a shot? Is it nothing more than a sign of the times, when instant communication and participation ribbons for everybody dominate the world in which we live?
Successful hunting takes great skill and dedication — and a little bit of luck. Even with the rapid rise in the use of electronic devices I never even imagined 40 years ago like modern-day game cameras, laser rangefinders, computer-generated topographic maps, aerial photographs and Google Earth. The best hunters I know have spent decades refining their knowledge of their quarry, their woodsmanship abilities and their shooting skills. They would never conceive of launching an unmanned drone equipped with a high-tech video camera that can instantly send footage to their smartphones so they can then immediately head for exactly the right spot at exactly the right time.
I just cannot imagine deriving a whole lot of satisfaction in the taking of an animal without having to do any planning, minimal preparation and not having to work for it. Has it come to the point where the modern sportsman has truly become what Leopold called a “gadgeteer” that places more importance on high-tech “stuff” than the commitment of time and effort required to become a true woodsman and bowhunter?
Frankly, I hope I never see unmanned drones lining the shelves of my local archery pro shop, gun store or big box retailer. I especially do not want the buzz of a drone engine spoiling the calm at daybreak while I sit alone and at peace with myself and the world around me, and glass a mountain drainage for deer or elk, then watch a cadre of “hunters” vector in on the herd as the drone driver gives them directions over their smartphones.
How about you? Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what you think.