Two years ago Jeff Muratore, a friend and his 12-year-old son were hunting deep in the Deer Creek Range, hoping to harvest the boy’s first elk. They had just spotted their quarry, when a plane appeared. The hunters watched, helpless, as it passed over the herd then abruptly circled back, flying over the elk again, scattering the animals and ending the hunters’ stalk.
Muratore is certain the plane’s occupants were scouting the herd for their own, less ethical, hunt.
Theirs was not an isolated incident. A friend of Muratore, Greg Munther, tried for 19 years before drawing a bighorn sheep permit, Muratore said. As Munther was closing the distance on a band of rams with his bow on the long awaited hunt, a plane circled overhead, chasing the sheep to inaccessible cliffs. It happened again the next day. Shortly thereafter an outfitter appeared on the scene with a client. Munter believes the outfitter scouted for his client by plane and scared the sheep away.
Aircraft scouting has become an increasing problem. Muratore worried that with the proliferation of drones, and their increasing range, searching for wildlife from the air would only increase, hurting animals and hunters wanting a traditional experience on the ground.
“Most people would agree, to use an aircraft to find game is not so much hunting,” Muratore said. “It really turns hunting into just killing.”
The Casper-resident, who is also a board member of the Wyoming chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, worked with the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission to prevent that from happening.
Last week the commission unanimously approved new regulations prohibiting the use of aircrafts, including drones, for scouting wildlife for hunting between Aug. 1 and Jan. 31.
Wyoming’s current rule prohibits hunting within 24 hours of flying to find game.
“I think it’s a win for the resource, which is our game animals, and it’s a win for ethical hunting,” Muratore said of the new rule.
The rule comes as drone technology continues to improve and reports of people using them to harass animals and scout, especially in western Wyoming, become more frequent, he said. Yet it wouldn’t make sense to ban only drones when people who can afford it can do the same thing with planes, he said.
The rule wasn’t specific to drones, but includes all aircraft, said Brian Nesvik, chief game warden with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Drones are not yet a problem, but the commission heard from a wide range of people saying they worried aircraft in general are overused to gain advantages while hunting.
The regulation does not prohibit people from flying for other activities, such as looking for cattle, Nesvik said. The regulation even uses the word “intent,” placing the burden on wardens to prove that a suspect pilot was scouting game for hunting.
Rob Hendry, a Natrona County commissioner who ranches near Casper, liked the previous rule and is worried about the new restrictions, which he opposed. From the end of September to the start of November, he’s often flying low over the landscape looking for his cattle. Sometimes he spots elk.
“I’m not going to run back up there and shoot one, but I like to tell the hunters,” he said.
Hendry allows hunting on his land for a fee. Not only are the hunters paying money to use his property, they also cull the elk herds. With the old rule — allowing flights 24 hours or more before a hunt — telling hunters elk were in a certain drainage was no big deal.
He realizes the rule requires game wardens to prove intent in order to prosecute, but he worries that during busy times of the year when he’s flying five times a week, people will file a flood of reports on him.
Hendry also sometimes flies near his neighbors’ land to see if elk have left the sanctuary of adjacent ranches, where hunting is rarely allowed, and crossed over to his domain. By the old rules he could, and would, report that information to hunters. Under the new regulation, he feels like he can’t tell anyone where he’s spotted elk.
Many states are making rules addressing drones, but Wyoming’s is particularly strong because it includes all aircraft, said Tim Brass, state policy manager for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
“Wyoming really took a bold step there,” Brass said.
Last year Backcountry Hunters and Anglers advocated for the inclusion of drones in the definition of aircraft in Wyoming, Brass said. As technology changes, agencies will have to continue to adapt rules and regulation.
“This is just the first of many technologies that we are going to need to have a conversation about whether they fit the principles fair chase,” Brass said.
The new rule, which still has to be reviewed and approved by Gov. Matt Mead, would go into effect Aug. 1.
Natrona County resident Kevin Christopherson pleaded no contest in May 2015 to a big game harassment charge after this self made video of Chirstopherson pursuing an elk herd in Converse County came to the attention of Wyoming Game and Fish authorities.