Drop the word “drones” in mixed company and the conversation can easily turn into a high-level debate about “Big Brother” watching our every move. But while infringement of privacy rights are a legitimate concern, some special interest groups are alarmed that activists will use the technology to harass them.

One such group is outdoor sportsmen in Alabama, who fear drones will interfere with legal hunting and angling activities. In response, legislation was introduced that amends existing state law -- which already forbids the obstruction of lawful hunting and fishing -- to include new language prohibiting drone use. Sponsored by Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, SB 240 defines the devices as “any aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator.”

Speaking to the Decatur Daily last month, Bedford called the use of drones to irritate hunters “a growing problem,” and that a person has a right to legally hunt and fish without being harassed. The publication reported that Illinois passed a similar bill last year, supposedly due in part to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) looking to use drones.

PETA has hobby drones for sale on its website. Called “Air Angels.” The sales pitch describes the devices as a way for people to capture video footage of illegal hunting and fishing activities that can be sent to game wardens and local law enforcement.

Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA, said the idea was to introduce a new hobby for its members, in the vein of bird-watching. But instead of observing birds, people can keep an eye on hunters and anglers to make sure they are conducting themselves properly.

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“We had so many complaints over the years about illegal practices – drunk hunters, hunters failing to pursue animals they’ve injured that are slowly left to die, all manner of things,” Newkirk said. “Anyone who reads the paper knows that there are things that go on in the woods that probably shouldn’t. I think that hunters seem to have the feeling that they are impervious to public criticism because they are hidden away in the trees.”

Jason Bruce, president of the National Predator Hunters Association, wasn’t buying it. He called PETA’s selling of drones a “marketing ploy” to convince people there is a lot of illegal activity going on when there isn’t.

“I think most people realize there are a lot of wildlife agencies out there to deal with that, notwithstanding legitimate sportsmen that would turn in others that don’t abide by the rules,” Bruce said.

Newkirk, however, felt her organization’s efforts were needed and warranted. She said when PETA introduced the drones at the start of hunting season last year, it “sent a shockwave” through hunters and generated outcry from sportsmen that validates PETA’s belief hunters are doing things they don’t want people to see.

“We just want to arm our people with a non-violent object that can go out and see if animals are being tormented against the law,” Newkirk said.

Disruption Controversy

The problem with using a drone to observe hunters, Bruce said, is that the technology alerts wildlife of an unfamiliar presence in the area, which disrupts legal hunting activities. He called the pursuit of an animal “long and tedious,” and remarked that “99 percent” of hunting doesn’t involve killing an animal. 

Bruce explained that hunters typically sit in the woods for hours at a time, silently blending in with the environment. But while animals “get numb” to planes flying overhead at 30,000 feet, a drone hovering a few hundred feet in the air may spook animals and in turn, ruin the hunt and hours of preparation.

So not only would drones harass sportsmen, they would also drive wildlife out of their natural bedding and feeding grounds. As a result, those animals may run off onto private lands or suburban areas where it’s more likely they’ll be killed.

Newkirk called Bruce’s rationale about drones being a disruption “balderdash.”

“A drone is like a bug, and wildlife is used to bugs,” she said. “Anybody who cares about protecting wildlife is going to be very conscientious about not disturbing wildlife.”

While Bruce admitted he hasn’t heard of drones actually harassing any fellow hunters out in the field yet, he said there has been some chatter about it in online groups. He also wondered how Amazon’s plans to use drones for deliveries might impact hunting.

Bruce noted that the peak breeding time for many big game species falls right during the holiday shopping season.

“The likelihood of hunters being disrupted by those drones may be significantly higher … between November 1 and December 21,” Bruce said.

Litigation Ahead?

In regard to PETA’s drones, however, Bruce was adamant that use of the technology by civilians to observe what legitimate hunters and anglers are doing is going to do more harm than good. He pointed to the various local, state and federal wildlife agencies involved in the protection of animals, and said he felt they were much more qualified to keep tabs on hunters and anglers.

Bruce added that if drones were an effective way to spot illegal hunting and fishing practices, agencies would already be using them.

“Our law enforcement officers have been doing this for years and they know exactly how to get in and weed out the problems [without disturbing other hunters],” Bruce said. “If someone is pushing a line they shouldn’t push, they have methods of approaching that.”

Newkirk responded by saying since legitimate sportsmen are operating under licenses acquired from a state, people have a right to go onto public lands and observe what they’re doing. She said that “harassment” would have to take on a “brand new meaning” to include hobby drones and welcomed litigation about the topic.

“Most of this, I think, is chest-beating legislation to suck up to the NRA or the hunting fraternity, because it is so meaningless,” Newkirk said. “You can certainly go out there and have a look, and I don’t think this legislation in any way impedes that. But if anyone wishes to bring a case, we’d be most interested in seeing the results of it.”

Government Technology contacted Sen. Bedford for his comments on the bill, but after agreeing to an interview, he did not respond to scheduling attempts by press time.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.