Issue of the Week: Fair Chase and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles


Since the late 19th century, North America’s hunter-conservationists have embraced a strong ethical tradition of fair chase. The concept of fair chase considers the means and methods for the ethical harvest of wildlife. One definition of fair chase is the lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging game species in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over the animal. Fair chase embodies the ideal of paying respect for wildlife and the traditions of hunting and not overwhelming game species by human capabilities.

As a concept, fair chase has been embraced by hunters as proper conduct of a sportsman in the field, and taught to new hunters for over a century. This educational process has produced today’s passionate hunter-conservationists, who have a profound respect for nature and a firm dedication to ethical harvest methods.

At the close of the 19th century, commonly used hunting methods were challenged and it was perceived that many of these methods violated the ethics of fair chase. For instance, the ethics of the technique of “jack-lighting” was hotly debated. Innovative Adirondack guides would mount tin boxes on the bows of their guide boats with lit torches inside to facilitate hunting deer at night. Deer would be transfixed by the light of the burning torch, making them easy prey; cutting edge technology 100 years ago. With the adoption of fair chase ethics, jack-lighting was made illegal in New York. Today, nighttime big game hunting (with or without the use of artificial lights), has mostly been banned throughout the United States.

During the middle of the 20th Century, private aircrafts became more affordable and widely available to the American people. Federal and state legislation needed to be developed to regulate the practice of hunting from aircraft. Congress enacted the Airborne Hunting Act in 1971 in response to public outcry over an NBC video depicting wolves being shot from an airplane. The Airborne Hunting Act prohibits shooting or harassing animals with planes. Alaska also has enacted legislation that prohibits hunters from hunting the same day they travel in an airplane in order to discourage the practice of scouting animal locations from the air, thus giving hunters and unfair advantage in direct violation of fair chase practices.


This regulatory framework set for aircrafts does not apply to the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones. While their use remains controversial, UAVs are innovative tools that offer numerous advantages for military personnel, farmers, wildlife biologists, and land managers. However, UAVs can be used in such a way that violates the principles of fair chase in hunting. Although the Airborne Hunting Act does not specifically address the use of UAVs while hunting, a number of states have been proactive in their response to the rise of the UAV era. Four states (Alaska, Colorado, Michigan, and Montana) have already banned the use of drones in hunting, while other states have enacted measures to regulate UAVs in order to prohibit their use for scouting and aiding in the harvest of wildlife.

As technology continues to advance, hunters will face difficult decisions regarding fair chase and hunting. Hunters and legislators should be mindful of fair chase issues and, on a state-by-state basis, determine what legislation is appropriate to ensure that the principles of fair chase hunting continue to be supported by a sensible legislative framework.

Twice a week, SCI Foundation informs readers about conservation initiatives happening worldwide and updates them on SCI Foundation’s news, projects and events. Tuesdays are dedicated to an Issue of the Week and Thursday’s Weekly Updates will provide an inside look into research and our other science-based conservation efforts. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more SCI Foundation news. 

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