Trail Cameras

Fisher, Sprague Farm, Glocester. Game Camera Photo by Noel Rowe.

Fisher, Sprague Farm, Glocester. Game Camera Photo by Noel Rowe.

For land conservationists, trail cameras (also called game cameras, scouting cameras, or camera traps) (and web cameras) can be effective ways to “see” what’s happening on your land when you are not there. Typical uses for these automated watchers include to:
• search for and document cryptic wildlife such as bobcat
• determine deer population density
• count visitors/users
• deter illicit activity/identify people engaged in illicit activity (dumping, ATVs, poaching)

Some conservationists have been reluctant to take advantage of these cameras’ potential because of uncertainty about the legality of such surveillance. This report provides guidance for minimizing potential legal pitfalls of trail camera use in typical land trust situations in Rhode Island. It does not review cameras themselves or instruct in their operation. For reviews of game cameras, including tips for their use, enter “trail camera reviews” into your favorite search engine.

Before reaching for your camera:
Though legal uncertainties about trail camera use may be minimized using the guidelines below, there are other potential drawbacks to camera use and one should give them due consideration before deciding to use a trail camera on conservation land.
• Good cameras can be expensive and they are difficult to secure in the wild.
• Though cameras are getting better all the time, their capabilities remain limited in some applications.
• Most importantly, if you resort overly quickly to camera surveillance, you may miss a chance to address larger, underlying problems and strengthen your organization and its position in the community. If using cameras for wildlife observation or visitor studies keeps you from spending time on the land, you may miss opportunities to meet users and create relationships or to discover things about wildlife and habitats. Using cameras to try to control illicit activities could create bad feelings between your group and abutters or user groups or between your group and your town’s police, fire, and other public officials. Good relations with abutters, user groups, and local officials are good to have for many reasons and cameras will do nothing to build them where they are absent and could possibly contribute to a breakdown in existing relations if badly handled.

Downloads:
Guidance for Trail Camera Use on Conservation Land in RI
Land Trust Alliance-Recording Device Guidelines practical pointers
RI Attorney General Memo of 2-27-2012
RI legal opinion, additional information
Goodwin Proctor/Land Trust Alliance Memo

This advice applies to owners of the land or their partners or agents. If your group is an easement owner of the land, not the fee owner, or stewards land for the fee owner, such as a municipality, through an agreement, you should discuss your interest in trail cameras with the owner and have their written permission for a specific plan of activities before you start.

Credits and Disclaimers:
This has been a project of the RI Natural History Survey (RINHS) with assistance from the RI Land Trust Council. RINHS is solely responsible for the contents of this paper. RINHS assists land conservation practitioners with tools and suggested practices based on our research and experience (www.rinhs.org). This document is provided with the understanding that RINHS is not engaged in rendering legal or other professional counsel. If you require legal advice or other expert assistance, seek the services of the appropriate professionals.

Special thanks to Gregory Schultz, RI Special Assistant Attorney General, Peter F. Cifichiello and Tamar Gubbins of Goodwin Proctor LLP, and Leslie Ratley-Beach, Conservation Defense Director, Land Trust Alliance. The work is based on the laws of Rhode Island and may not be relevant in other jurisdictions. The Land Trust Alliance offers general advice on the subject through their website www.landtrustalliance.org. This project is funded by the RI Conservation Stewardship Collaborative Endowment of the Rhode Island Foundation (www.ricsc.org).