Drones: both a menace and savior to wildlife

Drones for hunting and for harassment-
Drones to stop and catch poachers-
Drones for wildlife research-

More and more stories appear featuring drones and wildlife.

Recently it was revealed that private drones were in use in Zion National Park so that photographers could avoid scaling cliffs and get closeups of the wild sheep on top (and running after the drones had set them aflight).  Hikers were being harassed too.

Meanwhile, a number of stories tell how drones are sentries for the gravely endangered rhinos, elephants and other African wildlife. Illegal wildlife trade in Africa has grown so large that it is used by the numerous warlords to fund their brutal operations. Drones can provide real time video for wardens. It is easy to see that they could even be used to destroy the poachers using airborne ordinance, though there is no information if they are being used that way so far.

In Alaska drones are being used to locate, identify and count large game.  They could also provide tremendous information for wildlife biologists, though drones could also be used by the state’s notoriously unbalanced Fish and Game department to more easily find wolves and bears and kill them so that big game hunters can have a bigger smile.

So far Zion and Yosemite National Parks have banned drones. In Yosemite they were being used to film hard to reach locations and to video some of the climbers on the canyon walls for personal or perhaps commercial use.

Hunting and other groups are reacting to the use of drones to assist hunters, usually pushing to have them banned as violating fair chase. It seems hard to find a hunter that will publicly say they want to use them, but they do seem to be in use for hunting.  Montana, Colorado, Idaho and Wisconsin have banned drone assisted hunting. More are likely to follow.

It seems like for every good use of the now easily available drones there is a bad use. Drones will be a hot button issue for years.



  1. Richie G. Avatar
    Richie G.

    What an issue, yes for every good thing their is a bad method for using drones. But the same holds true for taking data on wolves and of course wildlife in general. People will always find a method or a way to take something good for science and use it against science. What is good for many might be bad for a few who want it all ,or just say they are outright greedy.

  2. Yvette Avatar

    Good assessment, Ralph. It’s too bad that a drone didn’t prevent the death by of Mountain Bull by a poison arrow. Mountain Bull had his enormous tusks sawed in half to help prevent him from being poached, and to keep him out of trouble. (he was known to be an ornery, big bull that often caused problems for humans). It was not enough to stop the poacher’s poison arrow. Too bad the drones haven’t stopped the slaughter of the other 100 elephants killed every day on the African continent. That is only the elephants.

    There seems to be no place left on earth where wildlife are safe from extinction that is the direct result of us humans, and/or human activities. We have out competed every other species.

    Once again, technology has outpaced the regulations needed to manage the use of the technology. Drones could be the technology to cull the poachers if the poachers don’t cull the technology from wildlife protectors first.

  3. Larry Zuckerman Avatar
    Larry Zuckerman

    They are using drones in Idaho to map and assess pygmy rabbit habitat near Leadore. Funded in part by IDFG with University of Florida specialized drones (not ex-military but rather designed on campus to carry cameras for sensing plant types and wildlife)and University of Idaho researchers and grad students. Also experimenting using drones from UF for salmon redd counts.

  4. Richie G. Avatar
    Richie G.

    See GRAD students trying to do the right thing and some parts of this are being funded by IDFG, this is what I mean.

  5. Phillip Loughlin Avatar

    Sort of a catch-all column here, but I guess the topic is pretty diverse right now. Hard to pin it down to a single issue.

    Question, though… you wrote:

    It seems hard to find a hunter that will publicly say they want to use them, but they do seem to be in use for hunting.

    Do you have verified examples of when and how drones have been used by sport hunters? With the exception of the hog control efforts in Louisiana (not sport hunting) and a rumored hunt in Norway, I have not seen any real examples of drones being used as hunting tools. Despite the vociferous opposition to the idea, it appears to still be primarily a conceptual concern.


  6. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    Another tool in the tool box that should be appropriately used as much as possible. If used by state and federal wildlife agencies, researchers and other authorized users, there should be standard criteria and protocols to be followed so that wildlife is minimaly impacted. I would think some of the advantages of these drones would be their quietness, ability to cover vast areas in short time periods, provide immediate information, reduce personnel workload and reach remote areas.

    GPS is probably the one of the single greatest land management tools developed during the past 25 years. Any inappropriate use of the GPS has been far outweighed by its proper use. I would think with time, policy development and enforcement, inappropriate use of drones would be reduced.

  7. WM Avatar

    ++It is easy to see that they could even be used to destroy the poachers using airborne ordinance, though there is no information if they are being used that way so far.++

    So, with this approach the drone (and its operator) becomes fact finder, judge, and executioner all in one, in real time. It strikes me there is a legal “due process” issue with that application, maybe even in some 3rd world countries.
    @Gary Humbard,

    ++ I would think some of the advantages of these drones would be their quietness, ability to cover vast areas in short time periods, provide immediate information, reduce personnel workload and reach remote areas.++

    I believe drones, in whatever venue they operate, will be a constant source of tension and ….trouble. The FAA can’t seem to get a good handle on how to regulate them, though they are required to issue rules soon; drones are for sale already in so many places really cheap, even on eBay, so that anyone can buy them; some already have the ability to carry a payload (Amazon.com has publicly disclosed a plan to deliver small products with them); and there is constant temptation to use them for illicit purposes.

    I bet terrorists and others intending to do bad things are already looking into how to do damage with them on a grand scale for the reasos Gary states.

    Call me a naysayer, but I see this technology as a curse, as well as its potential application to wildlife for good or bad.

  8. Louise Kane Avatar

    and there is constant temptation to use them for illicit purposes.

  9. Mike Avatar

    all poachers, in all countries should be shot on sight.

    1. Elk375 Avatar

      It is easier said than done, Mike. I have good friend who spent 5 years as a Rhodesian game ranger. Rule “458” was used but only when necessary; it was not a pleasant undertaking.

    2. JEFF E Avatar
      JEFF E

      something $3 could never do.

      It should always be “someone else” in $3’s fantasy world.

  10. topher Avatar

    Why is he still here?

  11. Nancy Avatar

    Small-player use

    “At one time the cost of miniature technology limited the usage of UAVs to larger and better funded groups such as the US military, but due to falling costs of UAV technology, including vehicles and monitoring equipment in their simpler forms, it has become available to groups that before would not have had the funding to use it.

    **Beginning in 2004, the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah began operating the Mirsad-1 UAV, with the stated goal of arming the aircraft for cross-border attacks into Israel”

    A good read and as usual, too much technology is brought about with warmongering at the root.


  12. smalltownID Avatar

    Most ideas about drones used for good or ill are blown way out of proportion. Unfortunately, I have first-hand experience with this in wildlife research. Most drones referred to in these articles are small (hawk size), have very little pay load, and can only operate within about a 3-mile radius of the operator for no more than a few hours (most only about 30 mins). This severely limits what people can get away with. I’m not saying that they can’t be used for pernicious reasons but the technology is severely limited if they aren’t closer to the size of a cessna than an eagle. Perhaps that will change but I don’t see it happening anytime soon. Most small drones really can’t cover vast landscapes in a short amount of time as people often suggest because of low payload, low battery life, and requisite close proximity to the controller of the drone.

    1. WM Avatar

      ++Most ideas about drones used for good or ill are blown way out of proportion.++

      Bullshit. UAV Factory Penguin. Payload 10kg (22 lbs); battery life 10 hours; remote control distance – irrelevant but several miles. Country of manufacture: USA/NY and Latvia. You can buy it today.

      1. WM Avatar

        This is a fueled engine. Their C model was recently featured at an Orlando, FL trade show. Operator was at the show and the drone was 5,000 miles away in Northern Europe! It can fly for 12 hours.

        This is just model plane technology that has been around for years, linked with computers and ever more user-friendly technology, and more precise avionics. The technology exists to fly a properly sized drone thru the open front door of your house and on to your kitchen table. The rotor technology is developing just as fast.

        1. Larry Thorngren Avatar

          Some one will fly one of these drones into the jet intake of a passenger plane landing in Boise of Las Vegas one of these days. The operators could control it from anywhere in the world.

        2. smalltownID Avatar

          WM, the cost if $50,000+ last I heard. Maybe affordable for 1% of the population. You highlight my point precisely!

          1. smalltownID Avatar

            That is without any special videography equipment which is going to cost twice that if it is high-end imaging equipment

          2. WM Avatar


            The cost is only a minor consideration for someone (especially supported by an organization) intending to do bad things. Just look at the cost of supporting Bin Laden’s 9/11 hijackers. Fully paid for cost of living, entertainment and enrollment in flight schools. I’d say about $100K/per bad guy, per year in 2000 dollars. That is pocket change for this sort of thing.

            And the cost of these drones is coming down very steeply, even as the product rapidly improves in all material aspects of performance.

            And, bear in mind here, your original comment was about short range, small payload and short duration of flight – not cost. This really isn’t a 1%’er issue.

            Those payloads just keep increasing and drone uses expanding. Regulating them is also challenging: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kV0HEzQM_Uw

            The videography costs seem to be relatively easily overcome, if that is a concern for legitimate or illegitimate application.

            The question is what kind of damage can a big one or a little one do if properly deployed. That is bothersome to me. Say, for example some bad guy wants to start multiple forest fires – remotely- in the West. Japan tried that during WWII with hot air balloons outfitted with small explosives: http://web.mst.edu/~rogersda/forensic_geology/japenese%20vengenance%20bombs%20new.htm

            These ideas to do bad things are not new, but the technology, unfortunately, is improving.

  13. Brian Ertz Avatar
    Brian Ertz

    the prevalence of drones will have implications for individuals’ liberties as well. our 4th amendment right to privacy (freedom from search and seizure) is founded on a test that involves whether a reasonable person would believe themselves to enjoy privacy in a particular sphere. if so, authorities must obtain warrant. if not, no warrant necessary. courts cite the prevalence of any number of privately invasive technologies as vitiating a citizen’s right to reasonable expectation of privacy ~ i.e. private individuals don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy where other private individuals have vantage/access. private individuals’ use of drones radically diminishes that sphere in which individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy ~ thus, wherein which individuals enjoy 4th amendment protections against unreasonable state search.

    1. WM Avatar

      The FAA may well become the keeper of rules of privacy as among commercial use and even private individuals because the devices operate in regulated “air space.” The concepts are still developing.


      Sure hope contemplated federal government efforts here work better than the “do not call” phone list. But then, it would seem a long range 12 gauge with #4 shot might be the preferred solution for some. Or maybe someone will come up with technology for target acquisition that locks on to some yahoo’s drone over your property. All you do is pull the trigger on a single projectile firearm (or rocket) and “poof!” no more drone, and no stray bullets. I am thinking self-help here may be more effective, though it might open other legal issues about destruction of personal property.

  14. Wolfy Avatar

    I’m kind of excited about this technology. As our budgets and personnel shrink, we need to have cost-effective and powerful ways to monitor the land base. We rely on satellite imagining and LiDAR – technologies that have matured in the last few years. I can see drones used to monitor forest health, wildlife, fire, law enforcement, and incident command. Other uses could be monitoring infrastructure (bridges, chimneys, cell towers, etc.), military and strategic properties, and our borders. I am also frightened by the prospects of how this technology could be abused. As with ever new technological advancement, it will take time for the ethics to catch up with the use. I believe the good will eventually far outweigh the bad.

    1. smalltownID Avatar

      Currently, these are not cost-effective Wolfy!!!

  15. Wolfy Avatar

    oh, forgot to post this web link; very cool stuff coming this way!

  16. mikepost Avatar

    We just did a 3 day drone test on our ecological reserve and found that they were a poor substitute for manned flight large mammal surveys but were god send for vegetation mapping. Just another tool in the box.

    1. smalltownID Avatar

      You hit the nail on the head Mike. Vegetation mapping seems to be the greatest use of drones at the moment – until they become more affordable. How big of an area is your ecological reserve that you mapped?


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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