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If this bill takes off, hunters could use drones to recover game in Pennsylvania

A small drone.
Natalie Kolb
Commonwealth Media Services
A drone is pictured before a press conference, which highlighted the danger drones pose to helicopters in emergency situations, at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy in Hershey on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020.

In December, the Pennsylvania Game Commission conducted a sting operation on a commercial drone pilot who operated a business helping hunters find downed deer.

The pilot was charged with four citations. Two were for use of unlawful devices, one was for disturbance of wildlife and one was for restrictions on searchlighting.

Travis Lau, communications director for the Game Commission, said the pilot was warned several times that it is illegal to use drones to recover animals that have been shot.

The situation led Sen. Jarrett Coleman, R-Bucks, to propose legislation to make it lawful to use drones in hunting.

“Because technology continues to evolve, do we want to adapt our rules and regulations to allow ourselves to be able to use that technology to prevent wasting game?,” Coleman said.

Lau said technology, in fact, is the big reason why drones are not allowed.

“Drones aren’t allowed in hunting at all in Pennsylvania for one reason, because drones are an electronic device and electronic devices are broadly prohibited in hunting,” Lau said.

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The state Game Commission only allows certain types of electronic devices to be used in hunting.

Coleman’s bill would amend Title 34 of the state Consolidated Statutes, which governs hunting rules. More specifically it would amend the 2018 decision to allow dogs in the use of recovery to also allow drones and other electronic devices.

A former airline pilot himself, Coleman said his office knew of no official opposition, but some hunter advocate groups don’t agree with the legislation.

Mike Kriner, director of government affairs at the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen and Conservationists, said his organization is concerned about the concept of fair chase.

Fair chase is a concept used by hunters to prevent anyone from having an unfair advantage.

“You want to trust the people that that’s what they’re using it for, which is to recover a deer which is great, I mean, you don’t want the meat to spoil, you want the family or food bank to use the deer, that sort of thing,” he said. “But who’s to say that that’s everyone’s intention?”

However, some drone advocates think differently.

“A drone is just another tool to help increase that recovery rate,” said David Heath, executive director of the Pennsylvania Drone Association.

Heath is also an avid hunter and suggested a 24-hour rule, similar to what Virginia has, in which drone pilots would not be allowed to hunt the land they flew above for 24 hours in order to allow any animals to flee.

Doing so would prevent hunters from having any advantage if they are also a drone pilot.

Heath said he wants hunters to understand the benefit of this technology.

“My hope is that the hunters become the advocates for this rather than the drone, because this is a hunting conversation more so than a drone conversation,” he said. “It’s truly about what is reasonable in terms of searching for deer that you have pursued, that you have killed.”

Arguments against drone recovery have also come from concerns over wildlife disturbance due to noise, one of the charges in Lancaster, however studies have shown drones don’t have an impact on wildlife when properly flown.

A study from the Journal of Field Ornithology found drones flown more than around 164 feet high showed no evidence of disturbing nesting birds.

Another study from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources looked into the use of drones for surveying fawn populations “found fawn disturbance to be low with all fawns remaining bedded and only a few lifting their head” in response to a drone.

Additionally, as drones become smaller, they also become lighter and quieter leaving them less likely to disturb wildlife.

Kriner said his organization will conduct a survey to gauge the interest in drones for recovery use.