Arizona trail cam ban raises questions


On June 11, the five-person Arizona Game and Fish Commission voted unanimously to ban the use of trail cameras.

This regulation is clearly focused on hunters as it specifically prohibits the use of trail cameras “for the purpose of taking or aiding in the take of wildlife, or locating wildlife for the purpose of taking or aiding in the take of wildlife,” while the use of trail cameras for research, general photography, cattle operations or any other reason other than the taking of wildlife would still be legal. The ban is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2022.

I first learned of this regulation in the Grand Canyon State several weeks ago while I was researching material regarding another topic and was a bit stunned by the news. I personally have never been interested in using and tending trail cams on my property, but several of my close friends are avid users of the devices on their properties or hunting camps.

What, I wondered, could be so wrong with the use of trail cams? A quick Internet search revealed a mountain of information regarding the Arizona ban.

Kurt Davis, AGFC chairperson, said, “We are a state with a large and growing hunter population … 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. When people start placing and checking cameras on those limited water sources, there are going to be conflicts.”

Given the arid climate of Arizona, those thousands of public waterholes obviously will attract plenty of wildlife along with many hunters setting trail camera to monitor what and how many animals are using the water source. High numbers of trail cam users making frequent trips to check their devices have the potential to create problems on two fronts. The first of those is the possibility of disturbing animals seeking water. The second is the possibility of disturbing other hunters during early hunting seasons.

With a total land area of 113,990 square miles, Arizona ranks as the sixth largest state, about two and a half times the size of Pennsylvania. If the majority of problems resulting from high concentrations of hunters and trail camera use were occurring around well-known public water sources, it would seem sensible to focus restrictions on trail cam use around those water sources. The AGFC, however, opted for the broad-brush approach of an outright statewide trail cam ban. Ironically, the AGFC banned the use of transmitter trail cameras back in 2018. Such devices can transmit pictures or videos wirelessly back to the owner, which eliminates the necessity of regularly checking the camera in person and eliminating many possible conflicts with wildlife or other hunters.

In some of the various discussions I read regarding the Arizona’s statewide trail cam ban, a reason often cited in support of the ban was trail cameras violate the ethics of fair chase. That is where things get really blurry.

I’ve heard the concept of “fair chase” applied to all sorts of hunting situations. The problem is no clear-cut definition for fair chase exists, and most folks who champion the concept of fair chase are willing to bend its meaning to suit their personal ethics and beliefs. In the broadest sense, “fair chase” is typically promoted as hunting with methods or gear that does not give the hunter an unfair advantage over the animal. Regardless of how one defines “fair chase,” there will always be wide latitude for interpretation.

For most of us, our personal code of hunting ethics is largely shaped by the rules and regulations of the state or states we hunt in. For example, hunting any type of game over bait has long been taboo here in Pennsylvania. But in other states such as Wisconsin and Michigan, hunting deer over bait was a legal and accepted method until recent outbreaks of chronic wasting disease necessitated prohibitions on baiting or feeding of wild deer.

In my experience, most Pennsylvania hunters would consider hunting over bait even where legal to be an unfair advantage for the hunter because that’s the way we were brought up.

But I’ve also talked to some avid deer hunters from Michigan and Wisconsin who made some valid arguments that having the option of hunting over bait was not the great advantage we might think.

Making a case that trail cameras infringe on the ethics of fair chase seems a reach at best. Quite simply, it’s a question of how could some trail cam pictures of animals downloaded that are days, weeks or even months old provide any meaningful advantage to a hunter? One of the justifications offered was in-person scouting gave the animals in a given area a better chance to avoid detection by smelling or seeing the scouting hunter and sneaking away without being seen themselves.

One last sticky point that occurred to me regarding the trail cam ban was is it enforceable? The wording of the regulation prohibits trail cameras “for the purpose of taking or aiding in the take of wildlife, or locating wildlife for the purpose of taking or aiding in the take of wildlife.” How far in advance of the hunting season would someone have to take down a trail cam for it to no longer be considered an aid for locating or taking wildlife?

Or how about a hunter who also locates animals by in-person scouting in the same area as his trail cam; how can the benefit of the time in the field be separated from that of the camera? Seems like a lot of legal gray areas to be sorted out in Arizona.


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