Future Tense

Don’t Harass Wildlife With Drones

That inspirational video of a baby bear climbing a mountain should never have been filmed.

Screenshot from viral drone video of bears
Ziya Tong/Twitter

On Sunday and Monday, Twitter was abuzz over a harrowing Russian video, obviously shot with a drone, that showed a mother bear and cub making their way across a steep, snowy ridge. As the drone films, the cub falls down the ridge and laboriously makes its way up to its worried mother, sliding back down onto the rock on multiple occasions. The cub finally makes it to the top of the ridge, and both mother and cub dart off into the brush, the mother glancing over her shoulder in concern as the drone follows them.

Many Twitter users found the video to be inspiring, in a way: Look, that baby bear never gave up! Many wildlife biologists, however, saw something rather different. They saw a disturbing example of how some irresponsible drone pilots are happy to harass wildlife to get a perfect picture, putting animals at risk and tarnishing the reputation of all users of the technology.

If you don’t know wildlife (or bears) well, you might look at the video and think that it’s perfectly fine—that bothering some bears for a few seconds certainly couldn’t cause them any long-lasting harm. You’d be dead wrong about that. A number of biologists and zoologists pointed out that the drone likely frightened the bears into taking that risky route across the mountainside in the first place. “A lot of people don’t understand that there are consequences for animals when they change their behavior,” says David W. Johnston, director of the Duke Marine Lab’s unmanned-aerial-vehicle program and a pioneer in the use of drone technology for whale research. “When you startle them and harass them with drones, you’re essentially distracting them from their work.” Over time, animals that are consistently bothered by drones may develop maladaptive behaviors, like responding incorrectly to other threats in their environment, or they may waste precious energy by attempting to defend themselves.

Unfortunately, wildlife harassment via drone isn’t exactly rare. The marine sanctuary in Monterey Bay, California, recently was forced to crack down on drones after authorities received complaints about them being used to harass seals, and numerous recent instances of wildlife harassment have taken place in national wildlife refuges and parks. Wildlife ecologist Sophie Gilbert has assembled a collection of videos that show horrible drone pilots tormenting animals in the name of YouTube views, showing creatures from moose to pronghorn antelope to bighorn sheep responding angrily to drone intrusion. Yes, some of these videos do show animals getting “revenge” by taking down drones with a well-placed swipe of the paw or head-butt, and it can be rather satisfying to watch a wild thing destroy a blinking human-built flying robot. But almost all those videos, too, wouldn’t exist if the drone pilot who filmed them wasn’t acting like a gigantic jerk. There are pretty much no excuses for getting so close to a wild animal with a drone that it is capable of taking it down (with the exception, perhaps, of some of those videos depicting angry birds of prey attempting to shove a drone out of their airspace).

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Wildlife researchers were among the first to realize how useful drones can be for scientific research, and many have adopted the technology for doing things like counting leopard seals hauled out on the beach, collecting humpback-whale snot, and searching for orangutan nests. These researchers also take the welfare of the animals they study very seriously, and some have completed studies that explore how different species—including nesting eagles and hawks and marine mammals—respond to drone intrusion, with the ultimate goal of figuring out how drones can be used in the least stressful way possible. This research is particularly important because every animal likely has a different “stress” level. There is never going to be a one-size-fits-all “It’s OK to fly drones at this altitude” standard for wildlife researchers. As ornithologist Samantha Hauser observed on Twitter, “It doesn’t matter if it’s X meters away, if the animal is showing signs of stress, it is too close.”

We even have specific information on how bears feel about drones: In 2015, University of Minnesota researchers specifically investigated the impact of drones on physiological stress levels in black bears. “What we found when we compared the bears’ heart rates and their movement (from the GPS locations) during the times when we fly the drones was that the bears sometimes did not move at all, but their heart rate spiked,” Mark Ditmer, a wildlife ecologist and lead author of the study, told me. “In the most extreme example, we saw [a] bear’s heart rate increase from 41 beats per minute prior to the drone flight to 162 beats per minute when the drone was overhead. It is a cautionary tale that wildlife may not act distressed, but they may be incredibly stressed.”

Not all animals have as marked a response as the bears in this study. Ornithologist Andrew Barnas has conducted studies that measure the impact of drones on polar bears and snow geese. He found that the polar bears (who were observed at a safe distance with spotting scopes) seemed to show “minimal reaction” to the aircraft, which were flown at a relatively high altitude. In the snow goose study, Barnas compared geese stress levels between days with a drone overflight and days without one. Again, he observed that the birds exhibited “small behavioral changes, but we did not see any mass panic.”

So why is it OK for researchers to fly drones over wildlife, if your uncle Bob who just got a sweet quadcopter can’t do it? Well, for starters, they’re professionals who know their research subjects very well, and they have a good reason for what they’re doing. Most reasonable people would agree that disturbing animals just because you’d like to get a “cute” video to put on the internet does not rise to this standard. As Johnston points out, many researchers have also gone through the often-arduous process of securing the proper authorization for flying their drones over wildlife. His team must obtain three different permits, which take up to a year to acquire, before they’re allowed to fly their drones over the whales he does research on. Several researchers have begun to develop best practices for observing wildlife with drones while also taking into account the impact of research-drone overflights on people living within the study area, and some offer specialized consulting geared toward helping drone pilots minimize their impact on local wildlife

I’m a drone pilot myself, and I was disappointed when I saw a number of hobbyists belligerently pushing back on wildlife experts’ criticism of the bear video. They claimed that the researchers’ critiques were overwrought and needless and that their measured criticism could (somehow) halt the good the technology can do. What these defenders of wildlife harassment don’t seem to understand is that their attitude does much more harm to the general cause of drone technology than comments from scientists—many of whom use drones themselves!—ever could. We drone pilots are only able to use the technology because the public and the government allow us to do so.

Drone pilots simply lack the governmental or economic power to demand that everyone else, from wildlife to technophobes to cranky sunbathers, adapt to our needs. If we want to continue using drones, we must ensure that we’re not using them to make the world actively more horrible—and tormenting families of bears strikes me as very much on the “horrible” side of the equation. We actually have less data, in some senses, on how different demographics of people feel about drone technology than we have data on how different animal species feel about them. The data we do have indicates that while people feel moderate to strong levels of support for drone use for conservation purposes, those attitudes are likely to shift quite quickly if people decide that drones are more trouble than they’re worth.

So how should someone who isn’t a researcher use a drone in the presence of wildlife? Probably not at all, especially if you don’t have a permit. “If you suspect there is a chance that your recreational use could negatively impact an animal, make the responsible choice and don’t fly,” says Barnas. “Respect the wildlife. The likes and retweets are not worth it.”