Expert Voices

Halting Drone-Assisted Hunting Before It Takes Off (Op-Ed)

headgear, ruminants, antlers, horns, deer, sheep, cows, giraffes,
Red deer stag (Cervus elaphus) with velvet antlers in Glen Torridon, Scotland. When the antlers of a deer are still growing they are covered in a special skin called velvet. They lose and re-grow their antlers every year. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Mehmet Karatay)

Wayne Pacelle is the president and chief executive officer of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). This Op-Ed is adapted from a post on the blog A Humane Nation, where the content ran before appearing in Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

The HSUS is calling on all 50 state wildlife agencies to adopt rules to prohibit drone-assisted hunting before this method of spotting wild animals and then chasing them down becomes the rage with people who've never contemplated the notion of hunting ethics.

Drone hunting would allow hunters to use remote-controlled, camera-equipped aircraft to locate wildlife in order to shoot and kill them for sport. This shocking issue came to light in Alaska after wildlife officials there learned that a moose was killed by a hunter using a drone. That incident prompted the Alaska Board of Game to propose and unanimously pass a regulation outlawing the practice. Two other states, Colorado and Montana, also have recently outlawed the use of drones for hunting, while two other states, Idaho and Wisconsin, already have included prohibitions in existing regulations on the use of aircraft to hunt wildlife. Three more states, New Mexico, Vermont and Wyoming, have pending rule-making petitions before their respective wildlife commissions to ban the practice.

Other states should follow suit, and promptly.

We've been down this technology-gone-amok road before. In 2005, the operator of a Texas-based captive-hunting facility developed an Internet-hunting capability, where a "hunter" could go online, spot an animal with a remote-controlled camera, and then shoot the quarry with a remote-controlled firearm. It was a bizarre and frightening example of innovative technologies being used for evil purposes. I didn't think canned hunting could get any worse, until someone sought to layer Internet hunting on top of it. In that case, The HSUS — along with some of our strongest adversaries in the hunting community — worked to ban this pay-per-view killing in 40 states. (Some of those state bans, which forbid remote-assisted forms of hunting, might forbid using drones, too.)

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I am not surprised by the opportunists who would use drones to make the odds even more lopsided in favor of the hunter — some hunters employ laser rangefinders, thermal night-vision cameras for hunting at dawn or dusk, motion detectors, GPS trackers for dogs, sophisticated ATVs for the toughest terrain and much more.

Americans' moral standards must reflect an awareness of technologies that turn hunting into slaughter. The use of these unsporting, high-tech products in hunting bears no resemblance to traditional hunting and violates the ideals of a "fair chase."

Already,various states have adopted important rules forbidding hunting from aircraft or motorized vehicles, restricting baiting for most species, outlawing spotlighting animals – shining a light into the forest or a field at night to locate animals for hunting -- or running down animals with snowmobiles — and there are other standards that seek to prevent slaughter and uphold "fair chase" standards. Of course, there are big gaps in the law, since about half of U.S. states still allow hunting of captive mammals behind fences in pay-to-slay schemes where the outcome is guaranteed.

Unmanned drones have some beneficial uses for wildlife — from anti-poaching surveillance to protect elephants in Africa to the study of wildlife populations. [Build a Better Drone, for Wildlife Conservation (Op-Ed)]

But using drones to spot game — or one day to spot and shoot animals — is beyond the pale. Responsible hunters and The HSUS agree that there's no place for this remote-controlled killing. In cases like this, the law must speak. There's no time to waste.

Pacelle's most recent Op-Ed was "Shelter Pets Reaching Out to Touch Someone." This article was adapted from "Droning On, Droning Off," which first appeared on the HSUS blog A Humane Nation. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.