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A rule proposed to prohibit the use of remote-controlled fishing devices on state waters advanced this week at a virtual Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting.

Commissioners during an initial vote Thursday approved collecting public comments on a rule that would ban operating drones or other remote control devices while fishing in Montana.

The rule would specifically target drone attachments and small remote-controlled boats designed to scout out, hook and land fish in places anglers couldn’t otherwise reach. Such devices have become increasingly common in other states, and videos have circulated the internet.

Specially designed drones and drone attachments can film fish from above, transport lines over long distances and drop bait. Miniature remote-controlled boats can film fish underwater, transport lines and bait and even land fish.

Phil Kilbreath of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Enforcement Division said at a Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting in June that calls to his division about the legal status of such devices have increased in recent months.

Using a drone to track, film or harass animals while hunting is already illegal in Montana. While state law prohibits using a gun, trap or “other device” to capture fish, it does not specify whether drones and unmanned vessels qualify as “other devices.”

Commissioners at June’s meeting requested that FWP draft new regulations before fishing with drones and remote-controlled boats becomes standard practice.

“We can compare this to a downrigger or a planer board, but those are essentially ancient technology people have been using… for hundreds of years,” said Shane Colton, chair of the commission, at the time. “This is a very detached way to harvest fish.”

At Thursday’s meeting, Colton said he supports starting the administrative process and gathering public input on a proposed rule.

“It seems like Montana always is ahead of the curve on these technologies in my view, especially with regard to some of our neighboring states,” he said. “I think it’s consistent with the ethical beliefs of our sporting public.”

Clayton Elliott, government affairs director of Montana Trout Unlimited, said he isn’t yet sure where the nonprofit will land on the proposed ban, but beginning a robust public comment period is the best next step.

“We’re trying to search and find the right nexus between angling tactics and our mission to conserve, protect and restore cold water fisheries,” he said. “I can’t necessarily say where we are going to land on some of these questions. I think there is certainly some room for public discussion.”

Nick Gevock, conservation director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, said his organization also supports the initiating public review.

“This commission had the foresight to get ahead of this issue with hunting a few years ago, and we think there should be some consistency there,” he said. “Obviously there has to be some thought on this because people use downriggers for certain things.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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