A Downingtown man was cited for illegally using a drone to try to locate a wounded deer on the Welsh Mountain Nature Preserve in Salisbury Township during the firearms deer season last month.
But there was no wounded deer, as the incident was a sting operation set up by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, according to the agency.
As word about the incident has spread, debates have sparked on social media about the use of drones for recovering deer and about the difference between “hunting deer” and “recovering deer.”
Citing the Welsh Mountain incident, state Senator Jarrett Coleman, who serves parts of Bucks and Lehigh counties, on Jan. 2 informed his colleagues that he plans to introduce legislation to legalize the use of drones for recovering big game animals in Pennsylvania.
“With the advent of drones, hunters have an additional tool to use and reduce the amount of dead game that goes uncollected,” Coleman wrote in the notice he sent to colleagues.
Joshua Wingenroth, 35, of Downingtown was cited for using an unlawful device for hunting, disturbance of game and illegal spotlighting in connection with the Dec. 6 incident at Welsh Mountain Preserve.
According to the Game Commission, Pennsylvania law prohibits the use of drones for hunting.
The law doesn’t specifically mention drones, but it does outlaw “electronic devices,” which are only allowed by exception. Electronic waterfowl decoys and ozone generators are electronic devices allowed by exception in Pennsylvania.
The law also outlaws the use of “motorized conveyances” to search for game. Game Commission spokesperson Travis Lau said a drone is considered to be both an electronic device and a motorized conveyance.
On Dec. 6, an undercover officer with the Game Commission posing as a hunter contacted Wingenroth seeking assistance with finding a wounded deer on the Welsh Mountain Preserve.
Around 10 p.m., Wingenroth flew his drone in an attempt to find the deer.
According to one of the citations, Wingenroth’s drone during the flight “did unlawfully disturb an antlered white-tailed deer.”
Also during the flight, the drone “did unlawfully cast the rays of an artificial light…to locate a white-tailed deer during the antlered deer season,” another citation states.
Game Commission officers arrived at the scene during the attempted recovery operation, seized Wingenroth’s drone, according to Lau, and citations were filed before District Judge Raymond Sheller on Dec. 19.
Those citations do not include any violation of rules governing the use of drones on Welsh Mountain Nature Preserve.
The 940-acre preserve is owned by Lancaster County Conservancy, which allows public hunting there.
Avery Van Etten, the Conservancy’s marketing and communications manager, said she is aware the Game Commission conducts “monitoring and enforcement” actions on the Welsh Mountain preserve, but “Lancaster Conservancy was not directly involved with this drone incident.”
The Conservancy “does not permit the private use of drones on our nature preserves, including Welsh Mountain,” Van Etten said.
Wingenroth apparently was targeted in the Dec. 6 sting because he “had been notified previously by the Game Commission that what he was doing was illegal, but he continued to operate and advertise his business,” Lau said.
Wingenroth is the primary contact for a business called Wingy Drone Services. The phone number listed on the business’ website is the same number Wingenroth lists as his home phone number on the United Blood Trackers website.
The United Blood Trackers is an organization dedicated to promoting the use of trained tracking dogs to help hunters find wounded big game.
The organization maintains a database of tracking-dog owners, whom hunters can call for assistance, but that database also includes some drone operators as well.
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Drones equipped with thermal-imaging cameras are used in some states to locate dead or wounded big game.
Last October, this reporter called Wingenroth for assistance in locating a wounded deer in Chester County, after finding his name on the United Blood Trackers site.
Since the call was placed in the morning, Wingenroth recommended contacting a dog owner, because he said the drone works better at night, when the air is cooler.
This reporter ultimately did work with the owner of a tracking dog in tracking his deer, which was not located.
Wingenroth declined to comment on the Dec. 6 incident while litigation of the citations is still pending. He said he plans to fight the charges.
As of Jan. 8, the website for Wingy Drone Services still offered assistance to hunters looking for wounded deer in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.
“At this point, I’m not taking that down,” Wingenroth said, declining to explain further.
At least three YouTube videos published after the Dec. 6 incident on the Welsh Mountain discuss issues the case raises. Public comments on those videos further the discussions.
Two of the videos were posted by Drone Deer Recovery, which is an Ohio-based company that uses drones to help hunters find deer. The use of drones for such work is legal in Ohio.
Wingy Drone Services is listed on the Drone Deer Recovery’s database of pilots who will help hunters find wounded big game.
And the third video was posted by The Pinch Point which is a hunting-themed podcast that reports and discusses hunting related news from all over the country.
Among the issues discussed by the hosts of, and commentors on, each video was “Why doesn’t Pennsylvania allow the use of drones to recover deer?”
As stated, all electronic devices are outlawed for hunting in Pennsylvania, unless they are specifically allowed.
At one time, Ozone generators were illegal for hunting here, even though they were used by many hunters as a way to cover their scent.
In 2017, the Board of Game Commissioners voted to add ozone generators to the list of allowed devices. That list also includes electronic waterfowl decoys and electronic callers used for predators and snow geese, among other devices.
Using dogs to track wounded deer once was illegal in Pennsylvania, although hunters often used dogs for such searches.
Senator Coleman in the memorandum issued Jan. 2 announcing his intent to introduce legislation making drones legal for tracking wounded game, chastised the Game Commission for not already allowing their use.
And he referred to the Welsh Mountain incident in his notice.
“One of the many challenges facing Pennsylvania hunters is the tracking and recovery of downed game,” he wrote.
“The advancement of unmanned drones has created an opportunity to aid in that recovery process. The state of Ohio permits the use of drones in the recovery of downed game.
“Unfortunately, the Pennsylvania Game Commission appears to be taking a hostile view of the use of drones in game recovery."
Coleman then briefly recounted the Wingenroth incident, without naming Wingenroth.
“Pennsylvanians deserve better,“ Coleman wrote.
He did not state when he plans to introduce his legislation.
Another issue related to the Welsh Mountain case that hunters have debated is “How was Wingenroth using a drone for ‘hunting’ if he was only out there to search for a dead deer?”
According to Lau, the Game Commission considers “recovering” a deer the same as “hunting” for deer.
“Recovery is part of hunting,” he said. “Unless a deer drops within sight, it’s not known whether it’s alive or dead, and it might be either.”
But here’s where the law gets tricky.
Using a light to locate game for hunting is illegal.
Hunting after legal hunting hours have ended is illegal.
But Lau said a hunter looking for a deer after hours with a flashlight is only in violation of the law “if the hunter is in possession of a sporting arm.”
Wingenroth had no sporting arm, but he was using an electronic device that cast a light to look for deer that was reported to him as being “wounded.”
How is that different from the unarmed hunter looking for a wounded deer at night while walking with a flashlight?
The difference apparently has to do with the drone, but Lau declined to spell out the difference.
“At this point, I think our comment will be that’s likely to come out in court.”
Lau said the Game Commission is aware of other people using drones for deer recovery in Pennsylvania, and that the agency has contacted them about their activities. He declined to elaborate.
A date for a hearing before District Judge Sheller on Wingenroth’s citations has not yet been set.