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A year ago.

my colleague and coauthor, Wayne van Zwoll, asked me a pointed question. We were at a writer's seminar, and after a presentation by a trail camera company, I had asked quite a few questions about the cameras and image management software. It was obvious that I used trail cameras extensively, as do many hunters these days. Dr. Wayne, who is a hunting purist in the truest sense, was curious whether the cameras somehow took away from my experience afield, removing some of the surprise and wonder that every trip to the woods should offer.


It is something I had honestly never considered, though I thoroughly weighed the ethical arguments of using cameras to help harvest game animals time and time again in my own mind. I use trail cams, and Wayne does not. We answered the following questions in an exploration of the practical and ethical issues that surround camera use.

Do trail cameras give hunters an advantage over game animals, increasing hunter success rates for whitetail deer? Is that advantage unfair or unethical?

J. Guthrie: Trail cameras, by running 24 hours a day and seven days a week, can certainly fill in pieces of the hunting puzzle, and that leads to higher success rates. Yes, cameras can give you an edge. In the South, many properties are chronically overpopulated with deer, and even with long seasons, hunters have a hard time filling their doe quotas. Camera use allows hunters to make the most of their time by hunting the right trail or food plot, and that means healthier deer herds. Is this newfound advantage unethical? Is the use of centerfire rifles instead of flintlocks wrong or using a scope that extends shooting light another 15 minutes over iron sights unfair? Each hunter has to figure out for himself where that line of fair and unfair sits, and it will probably be different for everyone.



Wayne van Zwoll: Where I hunt in the Mountain West, trail cameras are about as useful as the tree stand a fellow brought on his first elk hunt. The outfitter took him to the top of a ridge overlooking vast forests that faded to blue beneath distant peaks. "Which tree you gonna pick?" he drawled. On the other hand, a friend uses cameras to monitor resident whitetail and mule deer--and keep tabs on an expanding wolf pack (big country can make the chore frustrating). Last month, my amigo got nothing from lenses that caught three big bucks earlier in the summer. Hidden cameras might once have been thought a crutch for hunters. These days, when celebrity follows televised killing from tree stands in deer factories not accessible to the public, cameras in the woods are really just an ethics footnote.



Are trail cameras a legitimate management tool for hunters and biologists?

JG: They are one of the best tools to come along in 100 years for biologists and serious deer managers. Biologists and hunters are no longer taking shots in the dark by "guesstimating" deer populations. An annual camera census gives managers a baseline that allows for more effective management plans. As for other species with bigger, variable home ranges, they may not be as invaluable. But in some cases, like with tigers, for example, they have been used to find and then protect populations that otherwise might have slipped through the cracks.

WvZ: Yes. We use helicopters, radio telemetry and assists from GPS satellites to help us manage wildlife. In comparison, cameras are low-tech and cheap. Cheap is good.

Do trail cameras shift pressure to specific deer, weighting the harvest to older, bigger bucks?

JG: Absolutely. Is this a good thing? Absolutely. Knowing a big, mature buck is roaming around the farm will help some guys hold off harvesting an immature buck. Targeting older-age-class bucks instead of any buck improves herd age structure and overall heard health. Does catching a mature animal on camera guarantee it will end up in the freezer and on the wall? Absolutely not. A buck on the camera is not a buck on the wall.

WvZ: Sure. If you want more mature bucks in a resident population, you must be able to track trends in age and sex ratios. Cameras help you do that. Unless limited by age or antler restrictions or harvest quotas, hunters with access to those cameras will concentrate on and reduce that big-buck contingent.

Do trail cameras degrade a hunter's skills, his reliance on traditional woodcraft or his ability to learn the habits of game animals? Do they remove the mystery that is such a big part of hunting?

JG: I think they are a teaching tool that can help someone along, but they will never replace basic woodcraft. Regardless of their tremendous capabilities, trail cameras still have to be put where they can see deer or game, and that requires some basic knowledge of critter habits. And while a trail camera can take great pictures of bucks and bulls, it cannot sit still; spot crafty, wary game; or squeeze the trigger for you. A trail camera census allows me to catalog the majority of bucks on a property, but deer come and go and at least once or twice a season I ask, "Where the heck did that buck come from?"

WvZ: Cameras have about as much to do with hunting prowess as a BlackBerry with business acumen. You don't have to sit over a camera hoping a deer makes an encore appearance. If you choose not to condition your body and senses, learn the behavior and habitat of your quarry or hunt blind for a fine specimen in a wild, unmonitored population, well, the camera neither enables nor prevents.

Should state agencies regulate the use of trail cameras?

JG: No. Hunting is still so variable that trail cameras have very little impact on game populations, and what impact they do have is very likely positive.

WvZ: No, provided baiting is not legal. Baiting to hidden cameras reduces demands on the hunter to an absurdly low level. At some point, assists used by hunters make a mockery of the term "sport." From a biological perspective, harvest is harvest. But when fair chase no longer figures into the hunt, people without a stake in hunting are prone to condemn it. I can hardly blame them.

Has the use of trail cameras increased hunter participation, extending days in the field and growing that hunter's role from consumer to manager?

JG: Trail cameras get hunters out in the field more and give them a better understanding of what critters are doing and maybe why they are doing it. Almost any time someone has a better understanding of a species, his desire to see that population improve or remain healthy is increased. I know my whitetails and their habits to a degree, so as a manager I want to provide the best possible habitat and manage that herd responsibly.

WvZ: I can't say. It's hard for me to imagine someone wanting to hunt because he saw a grainy image of an antler on a trail camera. But then, it's hard for me to think the armed forces can attract recruits with video games. Some hunters--Mr. Guthrie, for instance--are keen to learn more about deer and manipulate populations. I suspect he had that spark before his dalliance with trail cams.

Do trail cameras encourage baiting where, in some cases, it is not legal?

JG: Yes. People who run cameras want to see pictures of animals, and baiting is a way to make sure that happens. Most biologists agree, and the research proves that when done properly, baiting will not have a negative effect on whitetail herds. The catch is getting everyone to properly space baiting stations and use attractants that do not harm the animals they are attracting.






WvZ: I suspect so. See above.


JG: There are few people I respect more than Dr. Wayne. When he shoulders a pack and heads up the mountain, you know he is going to do it right. His line of questioning caused me to rethink, once again, my use of trail cameras. Like any new technology, whether it is centerfire rifles or laser rangefinders, game cameras do impact the way we hunt and in turn impact game populations. I think the benefits far outweigh any negatives.

WvZ: Bright young men such as J. Guthrie annoy me because they know so much more about electronic things. Some of these, like the laptop gobbling my keystrokes, are useful. Others seem superfluous at best. I'll concede Mr. Guthrie's points, well articulated. Hunting now is not the hunting of decades past. Some changes have helped hunters become more successful; some have resulted in more game and bigger antlers and more stable wildlife populations. Changes that make hunting easier, from the ATV to the range-compensating riflescope, arguably do little to impress the nonhunting public. Are we still pitting our wits and skills against the senses and physical superiority of the game? Are we testing ourselves in wild places?

As I write this, yesterday I hiked alone into designated wilderness for a go at high-country mule deer in an early season. I covered 14 trail miles, gaining and losing enough elevation to draw complaints from every muscle. I saw no deer. Nada. But I enjoyed the alpine air; the slim, smooth waist of the iron-sighted lever gun in hand; the squeak of the pack frame at each step. Below, in the valleys, weeks from now, my friend with the trail cameras will open the general season from a stand. He will probably see deer and may shoot the buck he's already pulled up on his computer screen.

From what I hear, cameras do not affect the taste of venison.
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Title Annotation:Wayne van Zwoll
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2011
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