Illegal use of drones on the rise in parks
Wednesday, Oct 07, 2015 03:58 pm
Increasing illegal use of drones in protected areas, including Banff National Park and Kananaskis Country, is raising concerns about the effects on wildlife and people’s privacy.
Parks Canada and Alberta provincial parks are both facing a new challenge — unregulated use of drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Colleen Campbell, president of Bow Valley Naturalists, said there have been more and more people using drones in protected areas that not only bother people, but also are capable of tracking and harassing animal populations.
“They can be very intrusive, not just for people, but wildlife in particular,” said Campbell.
“Some of them are noisy, some have a little hum and some are silent, but they can scare the dickens out of you. They are suddenly right there, and just imagine how much that could spook an elk.”
Drones, especially for recreational purposes, are becoming incredibly popular and widely available. Drones available for consumer purchase range in price from below $100 to several thousand dollars.
Recreational use of drones is prohibited in the mountain national parks and provincial parks in Kananaskis Country.
Commercial use is permitted through a permit process, but there are guidelines in place aimed at limiting detrimental effects on wildlife and visitors. There are also Transport Canada rules governing use of drones for work or research purposes.
This past year, Banff National Park issued two permits for commercial use of UAVs, but none for research purposes.
So far, Alberta Parks has issued a handful of permits for commercial filming in Kananaskis Country, as well as research purposes such as pika habitat monitoring and glacial retreat research.
Melanie Percy, a senior parks ecologist for Kananaskis Country, said Alberta Parks is outright discouraging use of drones on protected lands, unless there is a permit for filming or research.
“One of the things we need to be careful of with drones is a lot of species’ greatest risk of predation come from avian predators, and we have to be really careful with the effects on small mammals,” she said.
“Bigger drones are a perfect example of disturbance to bighorn sheep and goats.”
A recent study in Minnesota in the U.S. shows that black bear heart rates soar at the sight of a drone. In the study, the first ever to test wild animals’ physiological reactions to UAVs, scientists successfully flew a platter-size quadcopter near wild bears 17 times.
In almost all of the trials, the bears’ heart rates – measured by sensors previously implanted in the animals’ bodies – went up significantly, especially when the bear was surprised by the drone.
A big boost in heart rate even occurred in a female bear which had recently gone into her den to hibernate.
Unexpectedly, the study found most bears didn’t act bothered by the remote controlled aircraft, even when the drone flew within 10 metres of them. The exceptions were two female bears with cubs that ran from the drone, forcing one family to enter another bear’s home range.
On the flip side, drones are becoming a new favourite tool for biologists and ecologists wanting to study wildlife populations. Drones are being used in various research projects, from monitoring hippos, elephants and antelope in Africa to native bird populations in Australia.
Alberta Parks acquired a drone earlier this year.
Percy said it would be used for research purposes, for example, getting detailed imagery of vegetation dynamics in conjunction with wildfires or prescribed fires, or research on flooding, even search and rescue operations.
“We are just getting people trained up on it and it will be subject to very tight limitations on when and where we could use it,” said Percy.
Illegal use of drones also raises questions around people’s privacy while they are out exploring national and provincial parks.
“Drones carry cameras, and anyone who’s in the viewscape of the drone is going to get their picture taken,” said Percy. “That’s a real invasion of personal space.”
Becky Webb, special events and permitting coordinator for Kananaskis Country, said UAV applications have to follow Transport Canada guidelines, but Alberta Parks also has its own list of restrictions, including public safety and park user privacy.
She said the effects on wildlife are also taken into account as part of the permit process.
“If someone wanted to use a drone they would apply to use them and we would review and then decide whether it’s something appropriate for the area,” she said. “We’re taking it on a case by case basis.”
Webb said conservation officers are reporting they are seeing an increase in illegal drone use.
“This is definitely a newer thing we’re seeing,” said Webb. “They didn’t have information on how many infractions they have written, but they are going with more of an education route.”
In neighbouring Banff National Park, there have also been reports of increasing unregulated drone use. Parks Canada would not grant the Outlook an interview request, but provided an email statement.
National park air access regulations prohibit aircraft landings and takeoffs in national parks except by permission of the superintendent for park management purposes or in emergencies. A UAV falls under this.
The statement indicated commercial use of a drone may be permitted through a restricted activity permit, provided there are no detrimental effects on wildlife or visitors, and there is no reasonable alternative means to obtain the same footage.
A special flight operations certificate is also required from Transport Canada.
“The restricted activity permit establishes the locations and identifies the terms and conditions for which UAV operators need to operate a UAV in the park,” wrote Christina Tricomi, a spokesperson for Banff National Park.
Tricomi stated the superintendent may also authorize use of drones for natural or cultural resource management, public safety, law enforcement, or park administration purposes, including filming for outreach, education and tourism purposes.
“The use of UAVs is carefully controlled,” she wrote. “There is very limited use of UAVs in national parks.”
Many jurisdictions are grappling with regulations governing drones.
The B.C. government plans to toughen up the laws prohibiting the operation of drones near wildfires, after the unmanned aircraft grounded air tankers and helicopters that should have been fighting two forest fires this past summer.
Questionable drone activity in protected areas can be reported to Alberta Parks at 403-591-7755 or Banff National Parks dispatch at 403-762-1470.