As drone use becomes increasingly popular, Colorado’s state parks and wildlife agency urges the public to help protect wildlife, even from the air. Although technology increases access in many positive ways, it can also pose a threat to wildlife by causing increased stress and even death for some animals. Wildlife biologists explain how drone use can be done with wildlife in mind while also being mindful of your surroundings.
“Drones can provide incredible insight to the landscape around us by producing views typically unseen by the majority of people. It’s important for drone operators to understand their surroundings including the impacts to people’s privacy and wildlife health,” said Brian Dreher, terrestrial section manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Part of being a Coloradan is respecting the natural environment around us. As people pick up drone use as a hobby, they also need to understand the importance of conservation ethics.”
Wildlife Behavior and Drone Use
Many animals are preyed upon by the air and can be distressed by drones flying above them. Wild animals are always hyper-aware of their surroundings because of their survival instincts. If there is a mother with young, there will likely be even more heightened reaction to the presence of drones. Additionally, many birds of prey see drones as a predator competing for food. Those using drones should maintain distance from wild animals and be on the lookout for signs of agitation. If you notice behavior changes, you are too close. Wildlife are constantly working to survive and our presence can have a major impact on their health. Flying too close or following an animal can cause distress. It is important that we all care for Colorado by employing some best practices while enjoying life outside in our beautiful state.
Drone Use and Hunting
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Field Services Assistant Director Heather Dugan says Colorado Parks and Wildlife is seeing more cases of people harassing wildlife with drones. Dugan stressed that the use of a drone for hunting is not only a violation of Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission Regulations (see below), but also a violation of the Federal Airborne Hunting Act.
“The bottom line is, if it’s related to a hunt in any way, you can’t do it,” Dugan said. “For scouting, locating, anything. If they fly before they take an animal, they’re illegal. If they use the drone to locate an animal they may have shot and wounded, they’re illegal.”
Even for non-hunters, drone use on Colorado Parks and Wildlife land is restricted. It is not legal to take off or land a drone in any of CPW’s more than 350 state wildlife areas. Drone use in state parks is limited to those parks with a designated area for model aircraft use. Even then, drone operators should be aware that it is illegal to harass wildlife.
Dugan said, “The definition of harassment is causing any change in the behavior of the wildlife. So if the animal runs, if it changes direction, if it stops eating, that’s harassment. Any change in the animal is considered harassment and it’s illegal.”
Penalties for violating drone laws can range from $70 to as steep as $125,000. “If we can prove they used a drone to locate wildlife and then killed it, it would be an illegal possession of that animal,” Dugan said. “That could be a fine of up to $125,000. It just depends on the circumstances and range of what they’re doing.”
Additionally, if a drone operator is found to be in violation, their drones or related equipment could be subject to seizure. “In many cases, we seize the equipment to see what video they had to prove their behavior,” Dugan said. “If we proved it, we might elect to request that it’s forfeited as a public nuisance. They’re obviously using it for illegal activities and shouldn’t continue to possess it.”
The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service has put together some key recommendations for responsible drone flying with wildlife in mind.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission Regulation
AIDS IN TAKING WILDLIFE
It shall be unlawful to use a drone to look for, scout, or detect wildlife as an aid in the hunting or taking of wildlife. 1. For the purposes of this regulation, drone shall be defined as including, without limitation, any contrivance invented, used or designed for navigation of, or flight in the air that is unmanned or guided remotely. A drone may also be referred to as “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” (UAV) or “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle System” (UAVS).
Protect Wildlife & the Environment
- Do not fly over or near wildlife as this can create stress that may cause significant harm, and even death.
- Pursuit, harassment, or an intentional disturbance of animals during breeding, nesting, rearing of young, or other critical life history functions is illegal
- Follow state wildlife and fish agency regulations on the use of an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) to search for or detect wildlife and fish.
- Launch the UAS more than 100 meters (328 feet) from wildlife. Do not approach animals or birds vertically with the UAS.
Fly safely, Stay in Control
- Keep your UAS within your visual line of sight at all times
- Take lessons and learn to operate your UAS safely.
- Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations.
- Fly your UAS at least 5 miles from an airport or backcountry airstrip.
- Keep your UAS away from populated and noise-sensitive areas, such as campgrounds, trail heads, and visitor centers.
Obey All Privacy Laws.
- Follow Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines
- The FAA has authority over all airspace. Ensure that you comply with all FAA regulations and guidance for flying your UAS. Information on FAA regulations is available here.
Forest Service Guidelines
- UAS are considered to be both “motorized equipment” and “mechanical transport.” As such, they cannot take off from, land in, or be operated from congressionally designated wilderness areas.
- Never fly your UAS over or in close proximity to any fire operation—wildfire or prescribed. UAS flights over fire operations disrupt aerial firefighting operations and create hazardous situations.
- Do not fly over congressionally designated wilderness areas or primitive areas as many people seek these places for the opportunities for solitude and quiet that they provide.
Travis Duncan is a public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Denver. Travis has lived in Colorado nearly 20 years and loves the outdoors. If you have a question, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. All Photos courtesy of Wayne D. Lewis/CPW.