Use of Drones To Spot Game Up in the Air

Minneapolis — Using drones as a hunting aid has sparked a nuanced electronics-vs.-ethics debate.

You and a buddy are on the lake — wherever your location — planning to hunt ducks the next morning. And you’re wondering where you’ll find birds.

Are they in this bay over here? Or that one over there? Or perhaps neither.

To increase the chance you make the best possible choice, you assess the weather and other variables, and combine that information with intelligence gained through earlier scouting trips.

Then you head out, hoping for the best.

How old-fashioned of you.

Wouldn’t you rather greatly increase your odds of bringing home a few birds by flying a camera-equipped drone over the area to take a peek before you hunt?

If so, welcome to the future.

Maybe.

Worldwide, drones are becoming a fact of everyday life. The Wall Street Journal reported last week, for example, that Yamaha has sold drones to Japanese farmers for 20 years, and that an estimated 2,400 unmanned helicopters spray rice fields there.

Similarly, drones used by movie companies overseas have filmed James Bond chase scenes, and an oil company uses a drone in the Arctic to survey the ice pack and whale migrations, the Journal reported.

In the United States, where privacy proponents are attempting to prevent drone use by law enforcement and other government officials, commercial interests are awaiting detailed rules expected next year from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that would govern use of drones in a wide variety of businesses.

Drones also are making news in the outdoor world, particularly in hunting, as states such as Colorado pass laws to prohibit their use in pursuit of elk and other game.

In January, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission banned the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in that state for hunting or scouting.

“As America’s first conservationists, hunters have a century-old tradition of policing our own ranks,” said David Lien, co-chair of Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “The regulations adopted by the Parks and Wildlife Commission protect our hunting traditions, by ensuring fair chase and fair distribution of wildlife.”

No specific Minnesota laws address drone use while hunting, fishing or trapping. But a range of laws on the books restrict their application in these activities, said conservation officer Capt. Greg Salo of the Department of Natural Resources.

“As an example, it’s against the law in Minnesota to use an aircraft over a state wildlife management area to ‘chase, herd, scare or disturb wildlife,’ ” Salo said. “And we would define ‘aircraft’ to include drones.”

Meanwhile, scouting wildlife in Minnesota with drones might be legal, Salo said, though flying them over private property without permission is problematic, as is, perhaps, their use over various federal properties, such as waterfowl production areas and national forests.

Meanwhile, in Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation last year making it illegal for anti-hunters to use drones to interfere with hunters and anglers.

The Illinois law passed after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said last year it would put squadrons of “Air Angels” over hunters to tape their activities, before uploading the video to their website and alerting conservation officers about any illegal activities.

Said PETA: “Wildlife watchers outnumber wildlife killers five to one — and if even a fraction of these kind people use Air Angels, they’ll go a long way toward exposing hunters’ dirty secrets. With PETA’s drones soaring overhead, we hope wildlife scofflaws will think twice.”

PETA’s drone-flying idea wasn’t theirs alone. Similar efforts in recent years by British anti-hunting groups have targeted fox hunters, with video of their findings readily available on YouTube.

“In Minnesota, I don’t think we would need a specific law prohibiting the use of drones to harass hunters,” Salo said. “Our hunter harassment law is strong and prevents hunters, trappers and anglers from being harassed while in the field, and also while ‘preparing to take a wild animal,’ which includes while camping or traveling.’ ”

Last week, photographer Brian Peterson demonstrated a drone he is experimenting with to capture aerial images. Equipped with a GoPro camera, his four-rotor, battery-powered helicopter rig, including various options, cost about $3,000.

A hunter himself, Peterson doesn’t believe drones such as his are ready yet for use by outdoors enthusiasts to take game.

“Drones are pretty loud,” he said. “I could see where they might frighten deer or other wildlife into running, rather than staying put.”

Another downside to drone use for, say, scouting, is that their cameras provide relatively wide-angle views. So the size of a deer or sex of a turkey, for example, might be difficult to determine remotely unless the drone was flown relatively low.

“Also, the camera on my drone doesn’t have a zoom,” Peterson said, “which makes wildlife that much more difficult to identify.”

Still, Peterson’s little machine was remarkable. It went airborne in a heartbeat, buzzed around like a bee, and instantaneously transmitted images to the screen on the control unit he held in his hands.

But image details were difficult to see on the screen, in part because the day was so bright. “To see details, it’s best to review the video on a computer,” Peterson said.

Far more sophisticated drones likely will be marketed soon, at ever lower prices.

“To keep up with the technology, we’ll need to change some laws here in Minnesota,” Salo said. “But I would hope that as more of these gadgets become available, people remember the ethical part of hunting.

“It’s human nature to look for shortcuts. But people should enjoy their time in the woods, in nature, and not be so concerned with what’s new in electronics.”