GPS technology has revolutionized wildlife science. It’s also created a market for those wanting to nab a trophy buck without hours of scouting.
Websites selling location data for specific animals started popping up a couple of years ago, said Brian Nesvik, chief game warden of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Some sell maps, data and photos for a set price. Others auction locations of trophy game animals to the highest bidder. And some act as a broker between people selling information and those looking to buy.
“It’s become another way to commercialize wildlife without any type of license or regulation,” Nesvik said.
A proposed law would end that practice. The Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee sponsored two bills dealing with GPS data and wildlife. Both will be considered by the full legislature in the upcoming budget session.
HB-5 bans selling trophy game location data and information to hunters. HB-6 allows state agencies, like Wyoming Game and Fish, to keep sensitive research data secret, such as the location of wildlife.
Buzz Hettick, chairman of the Wyoming chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, has seen information on big game animals, including GPS location data, pictures and suggestions on where to camp and how to kill the animal, sell for $2,500. The transaction eliminates the hunting part and makes it all about killing, Hettick said.
“The hardest part of hunting these animals, a lot of the time, is just being able to find them,” he said.
Animals move, of course, but many establish reliable patterns of teritorial use, often staying within concise ranges during much of the hunting season. A major part of hunting is matching wits with wildlife, Hettick said. Technological advances continue to give humans advantages over the animals. Finding the game, however, has remained a challenge.
The buying and selling of game locations also violates the “fair chase” hunting ethic, he said.
“Fair chase is about giving an animal a fair shake,” Hettick said. “You cross the line when the animal can no longer detect you by sight, sound or smell.” Or when it can no longer hide, he added.
If passed, the ban would be one of the first in the country, said Tim Brass, state policy and field operations director with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
States are trying to keep up with and regulate technology in different ways.
“It’s really the wild West right now,” he said.
Last week Nevada banned using game cameras during hunting season and live-action game cameras year round, Brass said. Other states are considering similar laws or determining if existing laws cover these new practices like multi-state online information sales.
Selling information about where to find wildlife not only takes away from the hunting experience and violates fair chase, Brass said, it also stacks the deck against the “regular Joe” hunter.
“It becomes a system where the guy with the most money gets access to all the best bulls,” he said.
A bill similar to this year’s proposed law was introduced last session, said Rep. Jim Allen (R-Lander), chairman of the Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee, which sponsored this year’s bill.
Last year’s bill passed the House, but stalled in the Senate when someone asked if he’d be in violation of the law if a guide told him where to find a buck and then he bought the guide a cup of coffee, Allen said.
This year’s bill specifically addresses advertising and selling information on the open market to make sure the intent is clear, he said.
The bill this year also explicitly exempts outfitters from the ban. Guides are licensed and have to follow specific rules, Allen said. Plus, they don’t sell information on a specific animal, they sell the entire hunting experience, he said. The wording of the bill exempted guides to make sure they weren’t inadvertently impacted, Allen said.
It’s the one part of the proposed law Hettick dislikes. It leaves a loophole, he said.
“If you are going to make it illegal, just make it illegal for everyone,” he said.
The other bill dealing with wildlife and GPS data would allow Wyoming Game and Fish to deny requests for “specific details of bona fide research projects” and wildlife location data that could “determine the specific location of an individual animal or group of animals.”
Currently the department has to go to court to deny study information requests because its gathered by a state agency and data is considered public record, Nesvik said.
The agency fielded a request for the most current location data from all collared wolves at the start of a wolf hunting season, he said. The department wanted to deny it because it violated fair chase ethics.
A photographer requested data from grizzly bear collars. He wanted to set up in his cameras outside of a den to try to capture images of a bear emerging in the spring with cubs, Nesvik said. This request put both the animals and people in danger, Nesvik said.
A judge upheld the department’s request to deny the information in both cases, but going through the legal proceedings took a significant amount of time and resources, Nesvik said.
The rule is important to protect wildlife, but also to guard proprietary research information from ongoing studies with academic or private partners, Nesvik said.
A similar bill last year passed the Senate and then died in the House, Allen said. There was concern it was too broad and would protect data people would want and should be able to access. This year the committee tried to make the bill more specific, he said.
Allen wasn’t sure when the House would consider the two GPS bills. The legislative session begins Feb. 12. Because it’s a budget session, all bills require a two-thirds introductory vote.
“I’m hoping they will move right along,” Allen said.