Bad Robot: State Wants to Ban Drones From Harassing Wildlife

Pennsylvania officials say photo-snapping drones have invaded refuges for migratory birds.
(Photo: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images)
Mar 22, 2016· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Pennsylvania is set to consider a ban on drones in the skies above all 1.5 million acres of state game lands following several incidents of harassment of wildlife by the unmanned aerial vehicles.

During its next meeting on April 4, the state Board of Game Commissioners is expected to take up a proposal on the ban, said commission spokesperson Travis Lau.

“This is the first year we’ve really dealt with it,” Lau said. “People are now using drones to get photos that they couldn’t [otherwise] get.”

In recent weeks, a number of drone operators have maneuvered their devices into the breeding areas of the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area on the Lancaster-Lebanon county line, said Cheryl Trewella, a supervisor for the commission’s Southeast Region.

That area is off-limits to the public to provide an undisturbed resting spot for migrating waterfowl, such as snow geese and tundra swans, as well as resident birds that nest there.

“We have lots of people who visit there because of the migrating geese,” Trewella said. “Some have seen people with drones and called us so our officers could check on it. We were able to locate some of those individuals, and citations are going to be filed.” Violators face fines of up to $1,500.

RELATED: Bad News for Bears: Drones Stress Them Out

The breeding area is demarcated by a wire, with posted signs declaring it off-limits.

“If somebody is flying a drone in there, they have violated that law,” Trewella said. “And it’s already illegal to harass or disturb wildlife.”

The commission posted new signs last week prohibiting drone use, she said.

In a separate incident at Codorus State Park in York County, an observer reported a possible drone passing close to an eagle’s nest monitored by the commission’s live-streaming nest cam.

“Somebody who was viewing the eagle cam reported something that sounded like a drone,” Lau said. “We didn’t find anything when we went out there, but I’m not sure what the lag time was.”

Encroaching on eagle nests “can result in the loss of an egg or a nestling, and individuals can be cited for an unlawful take,” Lau said. “Federal penalties are in the thousands of dollars.”

Lau said geese and swans stop at Middle Creek on their long migration to Arctic breeding grounds.

“These stopovers are important resting sites,”he said. “Some stop up to two weeks to make the next leg of the trip. We don’t want people pushing the envelope by disturbing resting waterfowl.”

Migratory birds are not the only concern. Many other species nest in the breeding area.

“Any encroachment could mean the difference between a nest failing or succeeding,” Lau said. “If adults are flushed out of their nest while eggs are being incubated, especially on colder days, there’s a risk of losing [the chicks].”

Once nestlings hatch, they are also at risk of being flushed from the nest by noisy drones.

“If it happens before they are ready to leave the nest, they wind up on the ground and may never be able to take that first flight,” Lau said.

Other wildlife are also affected by drones. A study published last July in the journal Current Biology found that black bears in Minnesota outfitted with cardiac monitors had an increased heartbeat when drones were present. One bear had a 400 percent increase, from about 41 beats per minute to more than 160.

The nonscientific use of drones is banned at national parks and in wildlife refuges managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. In April 2014, volunteers at Zion National Park saw a drone disturbing a herd of bighorn sheep, reportedly separating adults from their young.

In 2014, two bills regarding drones were introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature. One would have banned hunters from using the devices, and the other would have prohibited animal rights activists from using drones to harass hunters and anglers. Neither bill passed, although Alabama and Illinois approved similar measures.

Several lawmakers complained that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was selling a drone on its online catalog for activists wanting to document illegal hunting and fishing.

PETA spokesperson Lindsay Rajt said the group stopped selling the drones after the Minnesota bear study was published.

“We would support the ban in Pennsylvania out of concern for how drones might impact other animals that haven’t been studied yet but may have the same stress response,” Rajt said.

“But we would suggest going a step further and banning hunting as well,” she added. “What’s more stressful than having someone go after you with an intent to kill?”