The Zapata Ranch in southern Colorado is one of the few places that bison can still roam freely. Until recently, scientists and volunteers surveyed the herd the old-fashioned way: with binoculars and the naked eye. “It’s a shock how you can lose track of 2,000 bison on a 45,000-acre unfenced pasture,” says Chris Pague, Colorado Nature Conservancy senior conservation ecologist. But last year, The Nature Conservancy counted the herd using an increasingly ubiquitous conservation tool: an unmanned aerial vehicle, more commonly known as a drone.
Drones can be cheaper, more efficient and safer than traditional manned aircraft, and may also provide more accurate data. A six-bladed drone and camera costs about $1,500, and can deliver imagery with resolution at the centimeter level. Government agencies and nonprofits are already exploring their use in conservation, land management and wildland firefighting, with at least a dozen pilot projects currently in the works.
But introducing new technology to wild areas is tricky. Drones may unduly stress wildlife, as a study of black bears in Current Biology last year demonstrated. Recreational drones have also endangered wildland firefighting crews.
And problems will likely mount as drone sales outpace regulations. From 2014 to 2015, recreational drone sales jumped from 430,000 to 700,000, according to the Consumer Technology Association. Although the Federal Aviation Administration now requires owners to register recreational drones, public education remains one of the few tools to combat irresponsible users. In this technological Wild West, some drone uses are good, some bad, and some downright ugly.
Surveying on land
In 2012, the U.S. Geological Survey used a drone to count 15,000 roosting sandhill cranes in only four hours. By using an infrared camera in the southern Colorado Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge at night, the drone avoided startling roosting birds. This benefited both birds and surveyors, since manned aircraft often scare cranes into flight, potentially causing mid-air collisions.
Counting at sea
NOAA Fisheries biologist Wayne Perryman has used drones since 2011 to count penguins, leopard seals and fur seals in Antarctic colonies. “Humans are just lousy at estimating,” says Perryman. Last year, he integrated drones into an annual gray whale survey off the California coast. The imagery is so good that scientists can track individual whales and monitor their health — even determine whether females are pregnant. Drones may also save lives: From 1937 to 2000, two-thirds of all job-related deaths among U.S. wildlife biologists were attributed to aviation accidents.
Fighting the flames
Just over a quarter of wildland firefighter fatalities from 2000 to 2013 were caused by aircraft crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control. So the Interior Department is experimenting with drones to make firefighting safer. During the 2015 Paradise Fire in Washington’s Olympic National Forest, it used drone-mounted infrared video to see through the dense forest canopy and help guide helicopters to drop water on hot spots. In Boise, Idaho, the agency also tested a helicopter that can be operated like a drone for delivering cargo and dropping water and flame retardant.
Starting prescribed fires
This year, at Nebraska’s Homestead National Monument of America, the Interior Department worked with the University of Nebraska and the National Park Service to test a drone for prescribed burns. The drone injects chemical-filled pingpong balls with glycol and drops them into an unburned area, where they ignite within minutes.
Université de Montpellier researcher Elisabeth Vas and her French colleagues used a small quadcopter to test reactions in three waterbirds: semi-captive mallard ducks, wild flamingos and wild common greenshanks. They did not appear to respond to the drone’s speed, color or number of approaches, but when it approached at a 90-degree angle, like a predator, most birds either moved or flew off, potential signs of stress.
Researcher Mark Ditmer at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology discovered that even when black bears exhibited no visible reaction to a nearby quadcopter, their heart rates rose, with one bear’s quadrupling from 40 to 160 beats per minute. Long-term stress could affect health, while fleeing animals risk dangerous encounters with traffic or other animals. Ditmer is currently investigating whether black bears can become used to drones.
A recreational drone disrupted firefighting during California’s 2015 Lake Fire in the San Bernardino National Forest. When pilots spotted a fixed-wing drone with a four-foot wingspan about 1,500 feet over the fire, firefighters had to call off three air tankers to avoid a mid-air collision. There were 21 similar incidents that year. The U.S. Forest Service coined a new slogan, “If you fly, we can’t.”
Sheep on the run
The National Park Service temporarily banned drones after a 2014 incident, in which a recreational drone frightened bighorn sheep, separating a ewe from its young. Even with the ban, Zion National Park reports that visitors have spotted several drones, and the park has found at least one crashed machine. The agency is working on new regulations.
Fear by the bay
In 2014, two drones startled a herd of pupping harbor seals in California’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary into the water. Fortunately, no pups were separated from their mothers, trampled or killed.
Note: This article has been updated with the correct spelling of Chris Pague's name.