Drones have become popular conservation tools. The Bureau of Land Management, the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Geological Survey have all used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to monitor wildlife populations or to map roads or wetlands for land management purposes.
For example, in Colorado, the U.S. Geological Survey has mounted a thermal imaging camera on a drone to count sandhill cranes on the ground when they settle for the night. And in Indonesia and Malaysia, an orangutan conservancy effort is using drones to map the primates’ nighttime nesting spots. Identifying the animals’ distribution and density helps nonprofit organizations petition the government to protect national parklands from being opened to developers interested palm oil production. The drones are key, because ground-based efforts are slow and costly in the thick forests that orangutans favor. The only way to get better detail is on foot, which can be expensive, time-consuming and often inconclusive.
Drones can also be indispensible in the fight against poaching. In Africa, where poaching is driving iconic species—such as rhinos—toward extinction and is fueling a massive, illegal trade in horns and ivory, UAVs could keep animals safe. Drones help humans, as well, allowing rangers to stay out of the line of fire and stabilizing areas where criminal gangs of poachers have become a national security concern.
But drones have their drawbacks. Unlike some other wildlife monitoring methods (such as radio-collaring, camera traps or cameras mounted on animals), UAVs could be harmful to the animals’ well-being.
Elk on the run
The harm that drones can inflict on wildlife was demonstrated just days ago. On Monday, February 20, 2017, David Smart, a 45-year-old, Washington, D.C., man who wanted to film wildlife, flew his drone over a resting herd of ungulates on the National Elk Refuge near Jackson, Wyoming. The refuge is a 25,000-acre sanctuary for one of the world’s largest wapiti herds.
Elk and bison often congregate at the refuge to eat the feed put out to help them survive the winter. The season was particularly harsh this year, and the refuge received twice as much snow as it normally does. That can be very stressful for all kinds of animals and sometimes even determine their survival.
When the already traumatized elk heard and saw Smart’s drone, they—about 1,500 in total—stampeded for half a mile.
Smart was charged with the federal crime of disturbing wildlife, which is punishable by a $5,000 fine. To date, he has received only a $280 ticket from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Bears’ unbridled heart rates
A recent science report backs up the legitimate concerns environmentalists and conservationists have about the detrimental effects drones can have on wildlife. An August 2015 study published in the journal Current Biology is the first ever to test wild animals’ physiological reactions to UAVs.
Researchers from the University of Minnesota flew a platter-size quadcopter near free-roaming, wild black bears 17 times. In almost all of the trials, the bears’ heart rates, as measured by sensors, went up significantly, especially when the drone surprised the bears. In one extreme case, the UAV caused a bear’s heart rate to spike from 39 to 162 beats a minute, a 400 percent increase. A big boost even occurred in a female bear that had recently gone into her den to hibernate.
The scientists note that such stress could affect a bear’s ability to find food and reproduce, especially in lean times. Its immune system could weaken, making the animal more susceptible to disease.
Drones doing the discovery
Still, some say that drones and wildlife can coexist peacefully. In the case of the black bears, UAV proponents point out that heart rate is an indication of arousal, which is a natural, vigilance reaction. The spike may not necessarily be due to stress. All animals get aroused when there’s an unfamiliar sound. And, the study did show that the bears’ heart rates quickly normalized once the drones had left.
Too, wildlife has had to put up with our other means of monitoring, such as helicopter tracking and radio-collaring. Some believe it’s just a matter of time before animals get used to drones.
Opponents of the use of UAVs in conservation say that even if wildlife should get familiarized to drones, it will always be hard to tell where the line is for pushing animals beyond their threshold. And if you’re dealing with endangered species or those especially sensitive to human interference that may not be a boundary we should be willing to test.
Here’s the question we need to ask ourselves: If regular drone flyovers can protect endangered wildlife that might otherwise be poached, is it worth the repeated stress to the animals?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,