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Kurt Davis (right), chairman of the Game and Fish Commission, at a 2019 event with Gov. Doug Ducey to promote a partnership with a Flagstaff brewery to raise money for the agency.

PHOENIX — The chair of the state Game and Fish Commission says it extends what hunters call “fair chase.”

But the net result is that, as of Saturday, those seeking to bag an elk, a bear, a bighorn sheep or a host of animals legally hunted in Arizona can no longer get an edge by using trail cameras. Violators can be subject to fines, lose their hunting rights and even have to forfeit their kill.

It’s all based on the North American Model for Wildlife Conservation, what Kurt Davis calls “the bible” of standards and pillars of hunting.

“One of those pillars is (that) an animal has a reasonable opportunity to elude detection,” he said.

That’s why hunters can’t use drones to search for prey. And remote trail cameras — the ones that can send a signal through cell phones when they spot something — were outlawed by the commission in 2018.

But what has remained — at least until now — are those non-transmitting cameras that take photos according to a set schedule, with the hunter retrieving the memory card on a regular basis.

Davis said the whole issue of cameras wasn’t much of a problem years ago when the devices cost upward of $300, leading only a few hunters to set them up.

“Now you can buy them in six packs,” he said. “The technology, like all technology, is getting cheaper and cheaper.”

The result, said Davis, is multiple cameras are being set up around water holes to see what animals gather there and when.

Only thing is, he said, this isn’t Minnesota or Wisconsin where water is everywhere or Alabama where it can rain for 24 hours and new streams pop up. Instead, Davis said, Arizona has only about 3,000 water holes, all of which are mapped, meaning hunters know where they are.

“So cameras were proliferating on those water holes,” he said.

That created another problem. Each hunter wants to check his or her camera on a regular basis. But all that traffic scared away animals — both those that are hunted and those that are not — from the few places they could drink.

And he said that, unless halted, the number of cameras would double or more within 10 years and further interrupt the patterns of the animals that use the few watering holes.

But it wasn’t just the animals that were being disturbed. He said that back-to-back hunting seasons for different animals can result in one hunter’s effort to bag a deer being interrupted by others setting up cameras for a later elk hunt.

All that did, Davis said, was create animosity.

And then there’s that “fair chase” issue.

Davis said the commission sees its job as trying to maintain some sort of balance. And often, he said, that involves dealing with changes in technology.

“Our bows are better than they were 20 years ago,” Davis said.

“Our rifles are better than they were 20 years ago, our optics are better than they were 20 years ago,” he continued. Even the clothing that hunters wear has improved.

“And we have a lot more people in the field than we did 20 years ago as the state has grown,” Davis continued. “So all of those things have created pressure on wildlife and on people’s outdoor experience.”

All that, he said, resulted in the commission’s decision to rebalance the hunt with the ban on field cameras.

Davis acknowledged that cameras that do not transmit a real-time photo do not provide the same advantage to hunters as one which instantaneously sends out data. But he said there still is an edge for people who can “pattern” wildlife.

“There are now apps and technology where you take photos and you pattern,” Davis said.

“You look at time, same animal, certain times,” he explained. And Davis said that, just as with everything else, the ability to analyze that data with computer programs will only get more refined.

Davis said that may be only the beginning. He said there already are signs that entrepreneurs were setting up hundreds of cameras and then selling the images to hunters who wouldn’t even have to be bothered with going out into the field and checking their own cameras.

“And that begins to monetize wildlife,” Davis said. “And that’s a whole other issue.”

That’s not to say there isn’t money involved in hunting. People still can hire guides to help them track and find animals.

But the difference, Davis said, is that the guide actually has to be out in the field, “which, in the ethos of hunting, of sportsmanship, is a different standard.”

What also is important to remember, he said, is that, in Arizona, all wild animals are “public resources,” meaning they are the property of the state, whether for hunting with a permit or enjoyment by someone hiking in the woods with a camera or pair of binoculars.

“When you’re out there bird watching, say that’s what you like to do, you really don’t want to be walking into places that have 30 or 40 cameras,” Davis said, complete with people coming in and out to check and exchange the memory cards. “Is that really going to enhance your outdoor experience?

The new rules do not apply to trail cameras set up for research, general photography, cattle operations or protecting private property. But anyone who uses information gathered from any of these cameras to aid in hunting operations is subject to the same punishments, even if that was not the reason the equipment was set up in the first place.

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