Death From Above

Drone_credit iStock

From 300 feet above, the hogs look like small white specks against a black background. The animals go about their business, unaware that a small, battery-powered airplane outfitted with a thermal imaging camera is buzzing overhead. The camera transmits streaming video to a monitor several hundred yards away, where a group of men armed with rifles and night-vision scopes study the hogs. Their goal: To kill as many as they can.

Is this the future of hunting? A growing number of hunters hope not.

Hunting for Fair Chase

There’s no question that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — more commonly called “drones” — are an effective way to locate animals. No one is concerned about the ethics of using drones to target damaging invasive species such as feral hogs. The concern is that the technology could easily be used to bypass the “fair chase” ethics of hunting. Drones could allow hunters to scout wildlife without ever leaving their homes.

The Izaak Walton League’s conservation policies include long-standing opposition to “any killing of animals when the shooter is not in the immediate area” and states that the League would support laws against killing animals using equipment from a remote location. “The use of drones to even track animals during a hunt goes completely against the fair chase ethic that the League — and most hunters — believe in,” says Lee Hays, chairman of the League’s Outdoor Ethics Committee. “It’s no different than using small aircraft to spot game.”

Several groups have recently taken a direct stance against drones. Orion: The Hunter’s Institute, a hunting ethics think tank, passed a resolution in September 2013 condemning the use of drones as hunting aids. The Pope and Young Club did the same in February 2014, stating that using drones to “scout, monitor, and stalk North American big game” is a fundamental violation of the rules of fair chase.

Even Cy Brown, inventor of the hog-finding drone, admits that using an unmanned aerial vehicle to locate animals for the sole purpose of killing them isn’t fair. However, what he’s doing is not supposed to be fair.

“This isn’t hunting. It’s nuisance animal control,” explains Brown, a 37-year-old electrical engineer from Lafayette, Louisiana, and a partner in Louisiana Hog Control. (Tagline: We fly, pigs die.) “Feral hogs do an incredible amount of damage to agricultural fields,” Brown says. A recent article in The Economist estimates the damage at $1.5 billion a year to crops, lawns, and wildlife. “I think most hunters and landowners understand why we do what we do,” explains Brown. “This is just another way to help reduce feral hog numbers.”

That’s not reassuring to hunters who fear that drones may be just one more step in the technology creep that has infiltrated hunting. In-line muzzleloaders, hand-held GPS units, rangefinders, and a host of other technological advancements have helped hunters become more efficient at killing animals. Drones could make it even easier, says Tim Brass, southern Rockies coordinator for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, which issued a statement in August 2013 supporting a ban on UAVs to aid or assist in hunting.

“Our primary concern is that people will use them to locate game,” Brass says about drones. “A hunter or outfitter could scour an entire mountain without setting foot on it. It’s definitely a fair chase issue and one that we hope will not make its way into the sport.”

A Drone Too Far

A handful of videos are popping up on the Internet, including one from Norway in which a man steers a drone to within a few feet of a moose clearly befuddled by the object buzzing over its head. Another online video comes from a camera mounted on an electric quad-copter as it sails over a pond filled with geese. The drone circles the pond, sending the geese into the air, where one of the birds actually collides with the aircraft. On a waterfowl hunting forum where that video was posted, some people seemed giddy at the thought of using a drone to find birds to hunt.

Brass fears that may happen if state wildlife agencies don’t take preemptive action. The cost of a quad-copter is already less than $1,000. The price is likely to come down as the technology improves and more options become available. When a few hunters start using them, he says, more are likely to join to compete for a limited resource, despite the ethical issues. “It’s obviously not a real big issue yet, but we see the writing on the wall and that’s why we want to get out ahead of it,” he says.

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission agrees. In January, Colorado became the first state to prohibit the use of UAVs for scouting, hunting, or otherwise taking game. Alaska banned drone-assisted big game hunting in March, and other state agencies are looking at the issue.

Even Cy Brown, who is also an avid hunter, draws the line at drones when it comes to fair-chase hunting. “I’d never dream of using it for deer or any other game species. That’s not how it’s supposed to be done,” he says. “We have rules that make it fair for hunters so everyone has an equal chance for success.”

Sky-High Conservation

Brass agrees. He has no problem with the use of drones for controlling non-native invasive species, particularly those as destructive as feral hogs. He also understands that they can be used in other ways that benefit native wildlife.

“Our objection centers around their use for finding game,” he says. “We certainly recognize that they are already being used in positive ways.”

Thanks to a $500,000 grant from Google, the World Wildlife Fund is using drones to combat elephant and rhino poaching in parts of Africa and Asia. The group has already helped reduce rhino poaching in Nepal by keeping an eye on the animals from the air. In the past, anti-poaching efforts were conducted on the ground or from manned aircraft, but airplanes are expensive and foot patrols have proven largely ineffective.

Closer to home, UAVs are an increasingly common tool for wildlife research. They have been used to map and evaluate habitat for pygmy rabbits in Idaho. Drones have also been used to count greater sage grouse, manatees, and sandhill cranes, something that is most commonly done via fixed-wing aircraft or on foot. It turns out that drones do it better.

“Because they are small and relatively quiet, they are less intrusive than manned aircraft, so we can get more accurate counts without spooking wildlife,” says U.S. Geological Survey unmanned aircraft systems project manager Mike Hutt. “They are far less expensive, too. In many instances, they cost 10 percent of what it costs to use manned aircraft for the same purpose.”

Drones aren’t just cheaper, they are safer.

No part of a biologist’s job is more dangerous than climbing into an airplane to conduct wildlife population or habitat surveys. Two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists were killed in a plane crash while counting waterfowl in 2010. That same year, two biologists and a pilot from Idaho were killed in a helicopter crash en route to count salmon spawning beds in the Selway River. Those and other accidents could have been avoided with the use of drones.

Hutt says UAVs can be much more efficient, too. Researchers can plug in specific flight paths or coordinates, allowing the drone to cover only areas or locations they want it to cover. UAVs not only fly lower than manned aircraft, they fly slower, allowing on-board video cameras to get a better look at wildlife and habitat in less time than it takes for someone to visit the area on foot.

“We can identify individual species much better than we can with a spotter in an airplane,” Hutt adds. “They won’t replace manned aircraft entirely, but there are so many uses for them. We’ve barely scratched the surface.”

Hunters have barely scratched the surface in their use of drones, too. If more states follow the lead of Colorado and Alaska, that’s as far as they’ll get. Drones certainly have a valuable place in wildlife management, but not when that management includes hunting.

David Hart, Field Editor