It has been a year since Cy Brown and his hunting partner, James Palmer, had to stop their nocturnal forays in the Louisiana rice fields, remote-controlling a camera-rigged model plane to track feral pigs and kill them with night-scoped rifles.
The two electrical engineers from Lafayette, La., had gained a measure of media attention as early promoters of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to assist hunters. But now their nighttime, drone-aided hunting expeditions have been grounded by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
Just as drone-assisted hunting has started to emerge, authorities in the United States and Canada are moving to block use of the devices before it catches on.
In addition to the FAA restrictions faced by Mr. Brown and other UAV hobbyists, four American states moved this year to ban drone-assisted hunting. In Canada, with little fanfare this summer, Manitoba and Saskatchewan also explicitly outlawed hunters from using remote-controlled aircraft to track or herd their prey.
With drones becoming cheaper and easier to operate, there is concern that hunters could gain a prohibitive advantage that would deplete stocks of wildlife.
"We have had no indication that there's anything going on in Manitoba, it's strictly pro-active," said Brian Hagglund, a manager at the Wildlife Branch of the Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship.
Canadian provinces already prohibit hunters from using aircraft or other vehicles to locate, herd or chase their prey. Ontario's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, for example, says that "a person shall not use a vehicle for the purpose of killing, injuring, capturing, harassing, pursuing or chasing wildlife."
A spokeswoman for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said her department considers drones to be a type of aircraft and therefore they are banned from hunting use.
Matt DeMille, manager for fish and wildlife services at the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, said that using drones clashes with what licensed hunters in Ontario are taught – to follow an ethical approach that emphasizes safety and conservation.
Hunters are taught that they should only harvest what they need and be responsible and mindful of the reputation of their hunting activity, he said. The education program for licensed hunters also focuses on hunting as part of their heritage, an activity that is passed from generation to generation.
Set against that traditional ethos, Mr. Brown, the Louisiana drone-hunting pioneer, is less sentimental. "It hasn't been fair for the animals since humans learned to chip stone," he said.
He agreed that game animals are a scarce resource and hunting regulations help give all hunters a fair chance. However, he argued, "hunting with the aid of aircraft or remote-controlled aircraft isn't inherently unsportsmanlike."
In his case, he pursues feral hogs, a nocturnal, invasive animal that destroys farm crops and proliferates because it has no natural predators. His drone, which he dubbed the Dehogaflier, is equipped with a thermal camera, and he uses it to spot pigs that hide amid tall rice stalks.
"It's very fun, it's very challenging … and it helps people out because the feral hogs are doing major damages," he said.
That's the same argument made by two Saskatchewan men, Erick Alsager and his son Jan, who were charged with using a helicopter to hunt wildlife. The Alsagers operate a game farm near Maidstone. They were aboard the helicopter, shooting at coyotes on the ground, to protect their livestock, they said.
The local courts weren't convinced. Last year, the two men were fined a total of $21,000 in addition to having their hunting licences suspended.
Outside of Mr. Brown's feral hog shooting, reported incidents of drone hunting are rare.
Alaska banned drone hunting following an incident when a moose was killed by drone-assisted hunters in 2012. Wildlife troopers were alerted but didn't gather more details because the technique wasn't illegal at the time.
Officials in Manitoba and Saskatchewan said they wanted to initiate changes before drones became an issue.
Mr. Hagglund said there had been no incident, but the agency made its decision after one of its inspectors realized the potential for tracking animals when he saw a video of an Ontario acquaintance flying a drone in his backyard. Saskatchewan also acted before any reported incidents.
"Since small UAVs were becoming popular and affordable to the general public, it was prudent for the ministry to clarify that UAVs are considered an aircraft and therefore cannot be used for hunting/spotting purposes," the Saskatchewan Environment Ministry said in a statement e-mailed to The Globe and Mail. "It was a simple clarification of the regulations."
The use of unmanned aerial vehicles is already regulated by Transport Canada, which requires that they must meet the same safety standards as those for manned aircraft.
In the U.S., the FAA is still developing rules for commercial drone use. As for drone flying by hobbyists, there are restrictive rules, such as a requirement that the aircraft remain within sight of the pilot.