Drones on a Wildlife Refuge

The cell phone rang as we climbed a butte behind the volunteer campground on the refuge where we spend summers. “There’s a guy down here flying a drone,” one of the new volunteers said. “What should we do?”

Peering through our binoculars toward the row of volunteer RVs, we spotted the man who had skirted a locked gate and ignored “closed area” signs to fly his drone down a small hill in front of the RVs. “I’ll call law enforcement,” Chuck told the volunteer.

In the meantime, the volunteer approached the man to inform him that he was in a closed area and should not be flying a drone on a wildlife refuge. “A park ranger told me I can fly this in the park,” the man responded.

Although the volunteer told him that he was not in a park, the man continued the flight until law enforcement arrived several minutes later and cited him for trespassing.

Legalities and Effects

Besides legalities of flying a drone on a national wildlife refuge or in a national park, what effect would a strange flying object have on the wildlife that inhabits the refuge?

“Unexpected disturbance has the most significant effects on wildlife,” says biologist Eric Cole. “Regular traffic on a road is not unusual. Wildlife gets used to it.” It’s the infrequent or unusual disruption, according to Eric, that can affect wildlife.

Attacks from Above

Because many attacks on snakes or other wildlife come from above, it is reasonable to assume that an infrequent drone flying overhead constitutes an unusual disturbance that will stress wildlife. And merely the presence of a foreign object such as a drone would be enough to frighten most animals.

“We need to make people aware of the effects and penalties of drones,” commented one park ranger.

Undoubtedly, the visitor who brought his drone onto the restricted area of this wildlife refuge gave little thought to the consequences his device might have on local wildlife. Although he was upset about being fined for trespassing, he escaped a hefty fine for actually flying the drone on a wildlife refuge.

New Technology, New Rules

Drones are a new technology and a new “toy” for several different uses. We can only hope that people such as the man on the refuge give more thought to the effects such an object can have on surrounding wildlife. With new equipment come new rules and obligations with regard to their uses.

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