If you’re a hunter in Utah, you have likely heard of HB0295: Wildlife Modifications. The legislation, introduced by House Representative Casey Snider, ignited a wave of emotions and debate amongst hunters during its first two weeks in the Legislature. The final bill, which prohibits baiting for ungulate big game (not predators) and instructs the Division of Wildlife Resources’ (DWR) Wildlife Board to make rules and regulations for trail camera use, has been signed into law by Governor Cox.
From the outset, the bill was characterized as a “fair chase” bill. Before several revisions, it had instituted a prohibition on all trail cameras from August 1 through January 31. Upon the debut of HB0295, many strongly-worded responses to the bill flooded cyberspace. Supporters expressed concern that some hunters are taking the technology to extreme lengths, such as operating fleets of 100+ trail cameras to conduct 24-hour surveillance on big game animals. Others recalled first-hand accounts of hunters dumping a truckload of apples in front of a live-action trail camera, thereby allowing the hunter to go from “home to harvest” upon receiving a real time image of a big buck in front of his/her set. Those who opposed the bill, on the other hand, expressed a number of issues, notably wildlife management and fair chase decisions occurring through the Legislature instead of the Wildlife Board. Though the idea of a fair chase bill was promising, the original language yielded concerns, particularly regarding the trail camera portion of the bill. Broad legislative solutions were being proposed to solve a specific problem of extreme use and the technologically assisted “home to harvest” techniques without trail cameras ever having been addressed first through the DWR’s public input process. Further, trail camera restrictions in the original version only applied to public land. BHA, as an organization, draws the line of fair chase with live-action trail cameras. The Utah BHA Chapter initially issued a neutral organizational stance to HB0295, “in hope that an extended opportunity with stakeholders [would] form a more nuanced legislative product that achieves the desired outcomes for all.”
Through the revisions in the 2nd Substitute, the broad trail camera restrictions were replaced with a directive to the Wildlife Board to make trail camera rules and regulations with public input, allowing hunters and wildlife biologists to partake in that discussion. The new focus of the bill became the prohibition on baiting, a restriction that aligns with the objectives in the DWR’s Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) Management Plan to minimize disease transmission in our big game herds. Unlike trail cameras, baiting has had over a two-year history with the Mule Deer Committee (the group that establishes the state’s strategic plan for mule deer management) and Wildlife Board, which has resulted in no action on the issue despite a public survey showing that more hunters leaned in favor of a baiting ban and concerns around CWD, which results in fatality of infected cervids. While the first mechanism for wildlife management decision-making should be through the wildlife agency, the Legislature serves as the final check and balance if an important issue remains unaddressed in that space. By removing big game baiting, we are forgoing a practice with virtually no biological benefits in recreational hunting (which is already illegal in all but one other Western State) and gaining ground against CWD. Our chapter board voted unanimously to support the 2nd Substitution of HB0295 once introduced. As an organization, we believe the baiting prohibition is warranted given the concerns around disease transmission and the issue’s history in the Wildlife Board process.
One thing is certain about this bill: it has sent a wake-up call that we need to buckle down as a Utah hunting community and start having some of these challenging, but constructive conversations around fair chase as technology evolves. We need to pinpoint the problems and develop targeted solutions with stakeholder input and support from DWR biologists. Just because the trail camera prohibition piece did not pass this legislative session does not mean the conversation about technology in hunting is over; Utah BHA aims to be engaged as this conversation develops.