Drones: the good, the bad and the ugly

As the aerial technology increases in popularity, so do its impacts.

 

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.

THE GOOD

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.

Pablo Iglesias

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.

 

THE BAD

Oceanside scares
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.

Stressed-out bears
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.

Pablo Iglesias

 

THE UGLY

Firefighting interference
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.”

Pablo Iglesias

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • SOCIAL MEDIA AND DIGITAL ADVERTISING SPECIALIST
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening for a full-time Social Media and Digital Advertising Specialist. This position...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...
  • RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking an individual to fill the Regular Full-Time position of Resident Operations Assistant for Technology, Hospitality, Gardening, and...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....