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John McCoy: Let's close loopholes that might allow hunting with drones

It had to happen eventually.

West Virginia’s Natural Resources Police have cited two hunters for using a drone to look for deer.

The incident happened in late November in Coopers Rock State Forest east of Morgantown.

Capt. Steve Antolini and officer Aaron Clevenger, who were patrolling the area, noticed a pickup truck parked off the road with two men standing nearby.

The officers saw two rifles lying on the truckbed’s tonneau cover, and they noticed that one of the men was peering into a small screen attached to a hand-held electronic controller.

According to a Natural Resources Police social media post, Clevenger asked the man with the controller if he was flying a drone. The fellow acknowledged that he was, and that he was using it to look for deer.

The officers told him that it’s against the law to use a drone to locate deer while hunting. They then asked the man to fly the drone back to their location and land it.

The officers then wrote three citations: Both hunters were cited for having loaded firearms in a motor vehicle, and one was cited for use of a drone while hunting.

Since NRP officials put up the post a few days ago, considerable debate has ensued.

State law says it is illegal to “hunt, harass, or shoot at wild animals or wild birds from an airborne conveyance, a drone or other unmanned aircraft (including the use of a drone or unmanned aircraft to drive or herd any wild bird or wild animal for the purpose of hunting, trapping, wounding, harassing, transporting, or killing).”

A few folks have argued that since the word “locate” isn’t included in the law, officers should never have written the citation. Others have argued that locating deer falls under the “for the purpose of hunting” portion of the law.

One sharp-eyed fellow pointed out that the drone, a picture of which accompanied the social media post, didn’t fall under the federal definition of “drone” because it weighed less than 250 grams and is therefore classified as a toy.

That model, the $400 DJI Mavic Mini, has sold like hotcakes since it was introduced last fall, primarily because its “toy” classification makes it exempt from federal drone registration laws.

With all this in mind, I believe the West Virginia Legislature needs to tweak the state’s existing laws and regulations that prohibit drone use while hunting. If they don’t, the lawyers of the state will do a land-office business defending hunters who might use drones to locate wildlife.

In the 1990s, when drone technology was just getting started, I laughed when lawmakers in Texas passed laws to prohibit hunters from using the machines.

I had visions of people using drones as gun-carrying shooting platforms that would allow an operator hundreds of yards away to remotely draw a bead on an animal, and, with the press of a button, dispatch the critter.

I laughed because the drones being used at the time weren’t powerful enough to lift a gun, let alone the necessary optics and triggering mechanism. Now they’re plenty powerful enough.

If it hasn’t been done already, some mechanical engineer will develop a gyro-stabilized gimbal mount capable of aiming and firing a gun accurately, and at great distance.

Fortunately, West Virginia has a law in place that would prohibit its use for hunting. And, with a little tweaking, it could have a stronger law that would close any and all drone-related loopholes.

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1231, or follow @GazMailOutdoors on Twitter.

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Atkins, Linda - 3 p.m., Fidler & Frame Funeral Home, Belle.

Call, James - 2 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Hankins, Sara - 1 p.m., McGhee-Handley Funeral Home, West Hamlin.

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Johnson, Freda - 2 p.m., Kanawha Valley Memorial Gardens, Glasgow.

Ratcliff, James - 3 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.