Lisenbee: Drones? Deer hunting? An ethical quandary emerges

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Oct 27, 2019 at 7:00 AM

There is no need to be shy of new technology, but the DEC needs to address the use of drones specifically for New York hunters

I received an e-mail from a reader last week, and it sure got me to thinking. Are drones that are equipped with a video camera lawful for hunting deer in New York? But the DEC on-line guide gave me the answer — I think.

The regulations state very clearly that it is unlawful to hunt any big game with the use of any “aircraft.” Since that agency does not define an aircraft, the widest definition must be applied. Therefore, since a drone flies, it has to be defined as an aircraft. And therefore, it is unlawful for use while a hunter is actively hunting big game.

Still, there are a potential problems looming for deer hunters. What does the DEC do about the use of drones? These contraptions are popping up everywhere, and their cost seems to be going lower as the competition in that industry becomes more intense. But several questions concerning their use by hunters are also popping up.

Should their use be allowed by hunters who are actively looking for a wounded deer? And what about pre-season scouting or using them for scouting but not for hunting during the actual deer hunting seasons? Hopefully these and a lot more questions must be addressed by the DEC in the very near future.

Some states have already taken steps to prohibit the use of drones for any type of hunting. Others are currently considering the various alternatives, from a total ban to limited use to a complete hands-off policy. It is likely that, if these model aircraft are allowed to be used by hunters in any form, it will forever alter the definition of fair chase hunting for big game under the traditional rules.

So far some states have specifically banned the use of drones for hunting. Several other states (probably including NY) claim their current regulations prohibit the use of “aircraft” for hunting, which they feel is sufficient to cover drones. And in other states various pro-hunter organizations have already petitioned their state governments to prohibit drone use for hunting.

But does a ban on their use for hunting solve the whole drone problem? What about using them for scouting or watching food plots? What about individuals who oppose hunting using them to spook or scare off deer away from hunters? There are literally countless scenarios where drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) could aid and assist or harm hunting efforts.

Oddly enough, this issue has actually brought animal rights activists and ethical hunter groups together. The former claims use of drones constitutes cruelty against wildlife. Ethical hunters just call it cheating.

But are their legitimate uses for drones in sport hunting? What about using one to look for a deer that was wounded but managed to run off to parts unknown? Rather than allow that animal to go to waste should the blood trail fade out, why not permit its discovery and subsequent retrieval with the use of a drone?

And there is another important question. What about the federal “Airborne Hunting Act”? That law, which has been in force since 1972, prohibits the “taking, harassing, chasing or driving of wildlife, including birds,” by any aircraft. But does an unmanned aircraft qualify under that law? To my knowledge there has never been a federal court challenge to the AHA concerning drones. But I would also bet that is about to change in states where such use is permitted.

Right now it appears the use of drones as an aid for hunters is not a widespread problem. The only recent situations I am aware of involve anti-hunters using drones in an attempt to photograph and video-tape live pigeon shoots in Pennsylvania and other states. And every one of those drones were quickly shot down by the individuals shooting at the live pigeons.

Personally I believe that using drones as actual aides during any hunt destroys the entire concept of fair chase hunting. I also feel that the DEC would be wise if it addressed this situation as a specific potential problem and put a complete and permanent ban on the practice.

I also realize that there is a definite place for modern technology in the hunting world. Trail cameras are just one example. Another is the scientifically developed patterns seen in many modern camouflage garments. But there is a wide ethical gap of integrity between taking a photo of a buck from a trail cam or being better able to hide from a buck with good camo gear and using a movable “eye-in-the-sky” to follow and kill that same buck.

I would really like to hear some opinions from any of my 53 semi-regular readers on this subject. Just send me an e-mail at the address at the end of this column.

* * *

Some wildlife populations are increasing everywhere (deer, black bear, coyote). And, with respect to black bear, even where they are actively hunted their populations are still increasing rapidly.

What is the root causes of this problem? The most obvious is the fact that the number of sport hunters is in decline. Fewer and fewer hunters are going afield each fall, and there is too little recruitment of young hunters to replace the older ranks.

Fewer hunters going afield each year is only part of the problem. In states where referendums on wildlife have passed those unscientific measures have led directly to wildlife over-populations. California has passed such a measure prohibiting the hunting of cougar and black bear. Within just a few years they had too many of both species.

Cougar range expanded as young animals were forced out of prime territory. Food was less prevalent, and some of them went hungry. As a direct result there have been more cougar attacks on humans during the past 16 years then in the entire previous history of that State.

California’s black bear population underwent a similar transition when hunting with hounds was prohibited. With less hunting pressure, they quickly exceeded the carrying capacity of the habitat and began to expand into areas that had not held bears in modern times.

Adverse interactions with humans, an almost unheard of situation before hound hunting was ended, soon became routine. Honey producers, sheep ranchers and cattlemen all suffered from unmanageable bear (and cougar) depredations. Government hunters, using private contractors with hounds, now are attempting to get the population of nuisance bears (and cougars) under control, and at a tremendous expense to the state’s taxpayers.

It isn’t just the west coast, either. A Florida teen recovered after being attacked by a bear. Leah Reeder, 15, sustained injuries to her legs, back, neck and face. The attack happened near dusk in Eastpoint, on Florida’s panhandle.

The girl was walking her dog when the bear attacked, dragging the teen into a ditch. Florida Fish and Wildlife authorities received the report and live-trapped the bear.

Len Lisenbee is the Daily Messenger’s Outdoor Columnist. Contact him at

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