A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Federal Wildlife Officer issued a ticket earlier this week for illegal use of an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), or drone, on the National Elk Refuge. The Washington, D.C. resident was cited and fined for disturbance of wildlife.
The drone operator launched his equipment from a pullout along North Highway 89 and flew the UAS over a wintering herd of elk. The action created enough disruption to cause approximately 1,500 animals to bolt and run, dispersing the herd for nearly ½ mile. The animals, which had been resting along Flat Creek, scattered as far east as Miller Butte. In addition to creating a wildlife disturbance, the drone was not registered through the Federal Aviation Administration.
Policies regarding use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems may vary between land management agencies. Drone operators are required to familiarize themselves with and comply with all applicable restrictions in the areas where they are flying. Drones are especially dangerous when used near wildfires, which frequently occur on federal lands. They can interfere with wildland fire air traffic, such as air tankers, helicopters, and other aircraft used to suppress wildland fires. Forty-one wildland fire drone incursions were reported in 2016, resulting in a range of actions including grounding aircraft, canceling flights, and diverting aerial resources to other locations.
In addition to regulations that apply to wildlife refuges, special restrictions apply to drone use within five miles of an airport and within two miles of a helibase. Because of the National Elk Refuge’s proximity to the Jackson Hole Airport and a designated helibase at St. Johns’ Medical Center, additional regulations may apply depending on an operator’s location.
Drone use on the National Elk Refuge has been sporadic, explained Deputy Refuge Manager Cris Dippel. “We’ve had a number of reports in the last few years, especially on the Refuge Road and near the sleigh ride area,” he explained. Previous incidents have usually involved wildlife, including elk and bighorn sheep, and included other infractions such as trespassing.
Long winters, especially during heavy snow years like the current one in the Jackson Hole valley, can take a toll on wildlife. Repeated disturbances from human activity can stress animals and impact their health and survival. “There are plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities for people on the National Elk Refuge during the winter,” Dippel added. “We ask people to use caution and good wildlife ethics while viewing and photographing animals.”
General guidance and policies regarding the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems can be found on the Federal Aviation Administration’s web site at https://www.faa.gov/uas/.