DEER TRAIL, Colo. – This tiny plains town an hour east of Denver doesn’t have much to offer visitors – a gas station, a bar and a small-time rodeo one weekend a year.
But Deer Trail, population 500, is considering a proposal to make itself a national attraction for gun enthusiasts and people skeptical of government surveillance. Citizens on Oct. 8 will vote on whether to issue permits to hunt drones.
Yes, those drones. Shoot ‘em down for $25. With a $100 bounty reward for shooters who bring in debris from an unmanned aircraft “known to be owned or operated by the United States federal government.”
The initiative’s architect insists it’s a symbolic stand against government surveillance.
“These are not big drones you see on TV that look like airplanes. These are little 55-pound things that can come right down into your land,” said Phillip Steel, a traveling structural inspector.
Steel got the idea after seeing news reports about the National Security Agency’s domestic spying efforts. “Do we really want to become a surveillance society? That’s what I find really repugnant,” Steel said.
The measure drew a stern warning from Washington, which is considering several regions – most of them in Colorado and other Western states – where civilians can use drones on an experimental basis.
“Shooting at an unmanned aircraft could result in criminal or civil liability, just as would firing at a manned airplane,” the Federal Aviation Administration warned.
The proposal has sharply divided this tiny burg that lays claim to the world’s oldest rodeo and not much else. (Some historians credit Deer Trail’s 1869 rodeo as the first, though Deer Trail is just one of many claimants to the title.)
Taking a break from dishing up beef plates at the rodeo recently, Libby Mickaliger said it could be a great low-cost fundraiser for this dusty outpost. “If it raises money for the town, why not? It’s not like people are going to go and shoot one down,” she said.
Harry Venter, editor of the weekly Tri-County Tribune, worries the proposal sends the message that Deer Trail disapproves of the military, not domestic surveillance. “It’s embarrassing to most of us, to be honest with you,” Venter said.
Drone hunting has become the dominant topic at the Brown Derby, Deer Trail’s only bar.
“I try to play pretty impartial with it. ‘Cause if you own the bar, and you go out and speak for it or against it, you’re going to make people mad,” said owner Carl Miron. “But I don’t like the fact that the government can sit and spy on you, I’ll tell you that.”
Miron pointed to dilapidated buildings surrounding the Brown Derby, their window frames pockmarked with broken glass. Deer Trail could use some extra cash, he said.
And if the initiative passes, he’d like to organize mock-drone-hunting weekends to draw visitors to the sleepy town. “I don’t know what the government would think about it,” he said, “but it would be fun.”