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Michigan may ban drones in hunting

Gary Heinlein
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — State lawmakers are moving quickly to pre-emptively block rapidly expanding drone technology from being used by hunters to gain an advantage over deer and other elusive game animals.

Mindful that tiny cameras attached to small flying devices could be used by anti-hunting groups too, they're considering companion legislation to ban the use of drones to harass or interfere with hunters.

"This came from hunters and outdoor enthusiasts," said Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, chief sponsor of the first of two bills slated for a hearing Tuesday before the House Natural Resources Committee. "They felt (the use of drones) takes away from the spirit and tradition of what hunting is supposed to be about."

State lawmakers are moving quickly to pre-emptively block rapidly expanding drone technology from being used by hunters to gain an advantage over deer and other elusive game animals.

Pavlov draws a distinction between drones and technology used in common devices such as fish finders and trail cameras. That equipment, he said, assists in a smaller way and still requires a degree of hunting or fishing skill to be used effectively.

"This (drone) is a real-time device that gives you a view of the field and what's out there," he said.

Michigan wouldn't be the first state to prohibit drone use in hunting. Alaska, Colorado, Montana and Canada's Saskatchewan province passed bans earlier this year.

While hunting with aerial surveillance hasn't been a problem here, according to Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials, there's readily available Internet video showing how it might be done.

One video follows a drone-mounted camera spying on an elk among some trees near Oslo, Norway, as its operators are heard chatting excitedly. Another shows night-vision-equipped drone cameras zeroing in on nuisance feral pigs in a Louisiana farm field before they are slain by hunters on the ground using rifles equipped with night scopes.

"A big part of hunting is scouting and finding the game in the first place," said Drew Youngdyke, grassroots manager for Michigan United Conservation Clubs. "It shouldn't be just flying a radio-controlled plane overhead and saying, 'There it is, let's go get it.' "

MUCC members who saw the Web videos realized the potential for using cameras and aerial devices to hunt in unethical ways, he said.

"Our members believe in fair-chase hunting," Youngdyke said. "We saw examples of animals being harassed and where drones were following them. This (legislation) is an effort by hunters and outdoorsmen to get ahead of a technology we don't consider fair-chance hunting."

Drones mounted with small, sophisticated cameras are the new technology on some Christmas lists this year, at prices ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars. GoPro, maker of matchbook-size cameras popular among young people who post YouTube videos of their exploits, is among several companies investing in small drones with helicopter-like blades controlled by hand-held devices.

The Federal Aviation Administration regulates drones' commercial use by organizations such as TV news stations and by public agencies such as the police.

Under pressure from some federal lawmakers, the agency is developing rules to streamline the approval process for permits.

Non-commercial use by hobbyists and other consumers is permitted at low altitudes, away from airports and within visual range.

The state House Natural Resources Committee is considering Pavlov's bill to prohibit taking of game with help from unmanned aerial vehicles and a bill from Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, to prohibit their use to interfere with hunters. Penalties for violations could range from $100 to $2,000 and 30-180 days in jail, depending on the species involved.

The bills, approved by the Senate on 38-0 votes Sept. 24, are supported by the Department of Natural Resources.

Spokesman Ed Golder said the legislation "formalizes existing prohibitions" issued as part of a broader order from the Michigan Natural Resources Commission.

"We haven't had an issue with this in the state," Golder said.

"This is prospective legislation that addresses this issue before it becomes a widespread problem."

gheinlein@detroitnews.com