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FARMINGTON — The Utah Wildlife Board is sticking with its decision to ban trail cameras during most of the hunting season after its original ruling two months ago received enough pushback to trigger an administrative rule appeal hearing on the matter.
It was a three-hour meeting Thursday, where dozens of hunters provided feedback, yet, the board voted in favor of keeping the rule as is — it passed with a narrow, 4-3 decision on Jan. 4. Only one board member switched their vote this week, but that was to support the measure.
The rule bars hunters from using handheld and nonhandheld transmitting and nontransmitting devices to aid in the hunting of big game animals on public or private property between July 31 and Dec. 31. People also can't buy or sell trail camera footage or data — location information or time and date of the footage — to either hunt or try to hunt animals.
Had the motion failed, the board would have considered voting on an original plan brought forward by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The original plan would have extended the ban through the entire hunting season.
"We've got to get control of this. Rules have to be put in place, signs have to be put up to stop the bad actors," said Bret Selman, a member of the Utah Wildlife Board, prior to Thursday's vote.
The board revisited its decision after members of the board received "hundreds, if not thousands" of comments on the rule after it was decided, said board member Wade Heaton. Many of the comments objected to how the process shook out, per the board members.
Covy Jones, the big game coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, explained the process started with the Utah Legislature, through a bill it passed last year. It carved the pathway for the Utah Wildlife Board to crack down on trail camera use. The argument made for removing the use of cameras and other hunting technology was because it was thought to provide hunters an unfair advantage over the animals they were tracking.
But instead of having the lawmakers set the rules, Jones said power was given to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to study and make a recommendation to the Utah Wildlife Board. After two large surveys of hunters, a public comment period and several public meetings, the board voted to enact the seasonal ban.
As for why it included other animals than just deer or elk, that just came down to how the hunting calendar works. The ban was primarily meant to address deer and elk hunting but the cougar and bear hunting seasons overlap, meaning the rule also applies to tracking cougars and bears during the set dates, Jones explained.
In addition to the online feedback since Jan. 4, there were 73 comment cards submitted for Thursday's meeting — dozens more than most wildlife board meetings. That resulted in over two hours of public comment; between this and the online feedback, the post-decision response almost mirrored how split Utah hunters were about the rule.
Multiple people opposed to the rule change questioned how it would be enforced, especially if it's not clear who is using trail cameras for hunting as opposed to viewing wildlife. Some also wondered why trail cameras can't be used for scouting out locations when guides are permitted.
Reed Pendleton, of Moab, said he was originally supportive of the effort based on what was mentioned in the surveys but doesn't believe the final rule matched what hunters were asked.
"So, for me, it was kind of a blind shot and I think there is a lot of confusion," he said. "If hunters can't have those trail cameras out during the season, but other people can, like, how do we know they are being responsible?"
He added he's concerned that people will rip out trail cameras they see out in the wild during the season, believing it's being used for hunting purposes when they are actually just being used by people just wanting to view wildlife — a popular activity still permitted.
But while there were several people who voiced concern over the rule change, there were also several people in support. Matt Clark, a member of the regional advisory council for northern Utah, also defended the process, saying there were "literally hundreds of hours" spent between surveys, public meetings and other work that led up to the original decision.
"We stand by the process. None of us are considering changing our votes. I don't think any of you should be either," he told the board, adding that he and other regional advisory council members would resign if the members of the wildlife board members reversed their decision after there was already a lengthy public process.
When it came down to deciding again on the Jan. 4 measure, the members of the Utah Wildlife Board said they were appreciative of all the comments. They said they understand why people have been so passionate about the issue because there are several arguments to be made for and against it.
However, members condemned some threats, tribalism and division that emerged in the feedback.
"The most disappointing thing for me in the whole process is the comments I heard of, 'I'm just going to do what I want and then I'm going to damage property.' That is tremendously disappointing for me in this whole process," said board member Karl Hirst. "That bothered me more than anything else."
Ultimately, the board decided to keep the rule they enacted in January, meaning the seasonal trail camera ban for hunting purposes will begin on July 31. Selman said the board can always revisit the rule in the future if they find problems with it.
He also hopes this experience provides a lesson on the public process that goes into crafting rules and regulations.
"People say they didn't have a chance to get to be heard. Yeah, they did. (They) just (weren't) paying attention," he said. "And I think this is going to teach us how to pay attention."