On Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge last summer, while working for Audubon’s Project Puffin monitoring seabird nesting colonies, five of us researchers were relaxing on the porch of our cabin before heading back out to the colony to conduct afternoon feeding studies in the tern colony. Suddenly we all heard a noise, it sounded like a swarm of furious bees moving quickly toward us. We all looked at each other and then up at the sky where a clean white flying object contrasting against the stark blue sky moved smoothly above and over us, and then down the length of the mile-long island sanctuary.

Intense feelings of protectiveness, indignance and outrage welled up inside me. Here we’d spent the entire summer observing these beautiful birds and working to better understand them and ensure their protection during this crucial stage in their lives and here was someone taking their technology and inserting it into an area where such disturbance could even prove lethal for some species.

The island is home to an array of sensitive nesting seabirds carrying out the breeding season on Seal Island NWR. Nesting species include arctic and common terns, Atlantic puffins, razorbills, black guillemots and the easily-disturbed great cormorants, which we don’t disturb at all during the season for the very reason that the adults will desert their young if disturbed, leaving the babies exposed to predatory gulls and eagles that can even take a fully grown fledgling cormorant. The drone was headed straight for our cormorant colony on the southwestern end of the refuge.


We moved to action. There had been a recreational boat we’d noticed earlier that had puttered around the northeastern end of the island. Most of the boats we see out there are lobster boats and the occasional puffin tour boat, so this one caught our attention. Immediately we knew where the drone had come from and we split up to keep an eye on the aircraft while also trying to locate the boat.

Now, I respect that people are curious to explore places with this cool new technology and, with Seal Island NWR having restricted public access, something like this is almost inevitable. It’s the lack of awareness about how this injection of a close-approaching flying object could negatively impact the bird species that we were working so hard to protect.

As soon as we appeared over the rise and saw the boat just after the drone had found it’s way back to its owner’s out
stretched hand. And they most certainly saw us and, perhaps due to the scowls on our faces and someone’s raised long finger, they quickly understood they’d made perhaps something more than just a slight faux pas and moved off in quick fashion, though not after we picked up their boat number thanks to some powerful birding optics.

Unauthorized flying of a drone over a National Wildlife Refuge is most definitely illegal (50 CFR 27.34/27.61). “We’ve had problems at facilities across the country where people were harassing the animals with their drones,” said Monica Harris, with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Georgia’s Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, which is an essential stopover for migratory waterfowl. Penalties range from a $200 to $300 fine for unauthorized flying of drones in a wildlife refuge to as much as six months in jail and fines of up to $5,000, says Harris.

A study conducted in Minnesota looked at the impact of drone harassment on black bears. It measured the physiological reaction (i.e. distress levels) of bears as a result of drone encounters.  Implanted heart meters recorded heart rate spikes of bears that didn’t even outwardly show agitation spurred by the approach of the unmanned aircraft. One animal’s rate was observed to increase 400% upon exposure. This was despite the fact that these bears lived in an area with a constant barrage of noise, from highway traffic to heavy farm equipment. And of course, some individuals may simply flee the loud, unfamiliar flying object, which can lead them into dangerous encounters they might not otherwise come into, be it another animal’s territory, a residential area or high traffic roadways. A drone in Utah’s Zion National Park was seen harassing bighorn sheep which, upon fleeing from the aircraft, found themselves separated from their young.

While avoidable encounters like these are frustrating and make me scorn these propeller-lifted crafts, I also recognize the great value of this new technology and how it allows us to observe wildlife with care and prior knowledge as to how not to disturb the animals while subsequently learning new things

about them that we couldn’t otherwise know through most other methods of observation. By maintaining a “respectful” distance, we can learn much about their behavior away from human influence and we can make better population determinations and range estimates. Not only that, drones can be deployed to patrol areas where certain species are at high risk of poaching, such increased monitoring, as conducted in Sumatra to help monitor and protect endangered orangutangs, can deter potential strikes. Knowing that there might be an eye in the sky at any moment, trained on their activities, poaching activity has seen a decline in Nepal.

So while drones can do a lot of good, it’s important that people realize how much of a negative impact that they can have on wildlife with a flick of their thumb. Greater awareness is key and, as this is still such a recently developed technology newly put into the hands of the unassuming public, we need to spread the word and make sure that the benefits of drones to wildlife conservation aren’t outweighed by the opposing impact of harassment.

Have any encounters, good or bad, of your own of drone/wildlife interactions? Please leave a comment below describing your experience!


Tips for Responsible Drone Use: Protecting Wildlife & the Environment

  • 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.
  • Do not fly over or near wildlife as this can create stress that may cause significant harm, and even death. Learn more about NOAA’s drone policy regarding marine mammals here (link is external).
  • Pursuit, harassment, or an intentional disturbance of animals during breeding, nesting, rearing of young, or other critical life history functions is prohibited.
  • Follow state wildlife and fish agency regulations on the use of UAS to search for or detect wildlife and fish.
  • Launch the UAS more than 100 meters (328 feet) from wildlife.  Never approach animals or birds vertically with the UAS.

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One Comment


Very detailed, well written article, providing information on the drone and the impact it can have on wildlife
The article enlightens the reader, providing specifics on the negative impact drones have wildlife, while detailing how when used responsibly drones can in fact be a valuable wildlife research tool.
Thank You, Stacey


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