On June 11, 2021, the Arizona Game and Fish Department Commission voted unanimously to ban 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."
The unique thing about this ban is that it's a complete ban – all season, regardless of public or private land, cameras are not allowed. Montana, Utah, Wyoming, and Nevada have limitations on using cams during hunting season, but Arizona is the first state to ban them entirely.
Field and Stream did an interview with Kurt Davis, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission chair. He offered a few thoughts to consider.
Look, you're calling me from Minnesota, a water and cover-rich state where we wouldn't, and shouldn't, even be discussing this issue. But here, it's a different situation.
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.
As a commission, we also have to consider the quality of a hunter's time in the field. We have multiple seasons in many units. If I'm a first-season archery elk hunter, and you're a third-season rifle hunter who keeps checking his cameras, there's a good chance you're going to interfere with my hunt. And as the number of hunters increases in Arizona, the chances that a hunter or guide service will be servicing their cameras for a future hunt while you are on yours will greatly escalate, and it has been escalating for the past number of years.
Those are the parts that are related directly to hunting, but he goes on to discuss the concerns over ranchers leasing public land for grazing.
We partner with ranchers, and those partnerships are important; the same water that benefits their cattle also benefits wildlife. I have been contacted by numerous landowner/lessees about the increased traffic to their maintained water sources by those using cameras, and they are concerned about the impact on their infrastructure, roads, and their livestock's ability to get to those water sources.
Without quoting every point, you should at least begin to see that it's a complex issue. Arizona has unique concerns to consider, and it sounds like they're making an attempt to deal with those concerns.
One thing that is often cited in these camera debates is how trail cams potentially violate the idea of fair chase. When you start making determinations about what is and what isn't fair chase, I think you've lost the plot. The rifles, bows, sights, scopes, and spotting equipment have all gotten better and will continue to get better. Is it fair that most bowhunters need to be well within 100 yards to make an ethical shot on an animal, but a halfway decent rifle hunter can take an animal from 200 yards with a decent scope? Not really, so we start archery season early to give those hunters an advantage over the rifle hunters. Food plots, mineral licks, etc., how are they different from a pile of corn or even a feeder?
Do any of these things violate fair chase? It all depends on who you talk to and what their agenda is. The truth is we all draw our own lines with these things. Does a camera on a game trail tell you enough to increase your chances of taking an animal, if so how much, 200%, 500%? Does it increase it more than having a bow that shoots an arrow 350fps? What about having clothing that traps your scent using activated carbon or using scents like estrous to lure deer? Are any of these things "ethical" when hunting, or should we only ever use traditional bows and black powder?
Again, it's hard to say, and it's a moving target. In my opinion, it seems like the right way to manage these things is to monitor the population and manage it accordingly. If usage of trail cams points to a problem, then yeah, we do something about it for the sake of the population. On the flip side, you could just as easily shorten the season or use other measures to manage the population.
Where It Feels Wrong
These debates are complex, and it'd be wrong to oversimplify them, but one aspect of this ban that seems particularly problematic to me is what to do with private land. The ban includes private, so technically, you cannot place trail cams even on private land. Nothing about that feels right to me.
It could be that I'm not from Arizona and not familiar with what hunting or management looks like there, but it seems very much like an overreach. Game moves and travels, you don't own the game that happens to be on your land at a given time, and you shouldn't be able to take it out of season or without a license. However, I'm not sure I understand how it seems okay to tell someone that they cannot put a camera up on their land for the purpose of better understanding how game may move through it. And that includes those that are doing it with the intention of using that information to take that game.
All of the rules still apply – we have bag limits, hunting seasons, limitations on baiting, etc.; some of those things bleed over to private land (baiting), but a trail camera is such a passive tool compared to baiting. So the only rationale that makes sense for banning trail cam use on private is if you're betting everything on trail cams being at odds with fair chase, and I just don't see it.
It's clear from reading up on this Arizona ban that the topic of trail cameras really divides people. It almost feels like the crossbows during archery season debate. Regardless, it is complex and will be debated more and more as cameras become cheaper, easier to manage, and of better quality.
Being in the south, I can't speak for what it's like in Arizona, but the way I personally use cameras here is pretty simple. I use trail cameras on private land only. I don't like the idea of placing cameras on public land, it doesn't feel right, and you run the risk of them being stolen or damaged. I prefer to scout public land because I actually enjoy it, and I enjoy the challenge that comes along with hunting it.
On private land, I run a lot of cameras and track the data religiously. I do this to better understand animal behavior (not just deer) and follow specific animals over the years. Do I feel like using cameras has helped me take animals over the years? Maybe, maybe not, but I do know that it does not give me an unfair advantage because, with the number of cameras I have and the data collected, I would have way more trophies hanging on the wall if it did.