New rules in works to stop drones from harassing birds
SALEM, Ore. — If you’re a black oystercatcher sitting on a nest of eggs, there is good reason to be concerned if a large, buzzing object flies directly at you.
Even if the object is just a drone, the small blackish birds with reddish-orange bills often scatter in fear, worried that the unmanned aircraft is actually a predator such as a bald eagle or falcon.
The scenario has become increasingly common over the past two years at the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, the islands just off the coast that are critical for nesting shorebirds but also make for scenic drone videos.
“When the birds fly away from their nest – to avoid getting eaten by what they think is a falcon – they leave their eggs or chicks vulnerable, exposing them to secondary predators like gulls, crows and vultures, which come in and eat up as much as they can,” Dawn Harris of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the islands off the Oregon beach, told the Statesman Journal.
“It can be a significant loss.”
As the number of drone operators on the Oregon Coast rises, the number of black oystercatchers has declined. They were listed as a species of concern in 2021 as their numbers dropped to an estimated 500 animals, Harris said.
In response, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department is planning to have new rules on where drones can take off and land on the coast – and all state parks – next summer.
“Drone use is a persistent and growing problem for wildlife on Oregon’s coast,” said Brent Lawrence, public affairs officer for USFWS.
Beautiful scenery, delicate ecosystem
It’s not surprising that drone pilots choose the Oregon Coast and its many islands for flights. The footage is often spectacular, taking in the sweep of the rugged cliffs and islands such as Haystack Rock from a bird’s eye view.
But real birds are, in fact, nesting on just about every island or sea stack that’s surrounded by water, Harris said. And summer is when they nest.
Previously, rangers and volunteers only saw a handful of drone operators flying near the islands, Harris said. But that number has jumped significantly, leading to more birds being stressed and driven off their nests.
For birds in decline – such as the black oystercatcher – that can have consequences.
“Every baby and chick is important,” Harris said, noting a situation in California where a drone forced about 3,000 adult elegant terns to abandon their nests, leaving 1,500 to 2,000 eggs behind. Other birds impacted by drones flying too close to the Oregon islands include the common murre, pigeon guillemot, tufted puffin and two types of cormorants.
Solutions include education, new rules
The concern, shared by multiple land agencies, is prompting a twofold response.
First, Harris said, rangers and volunteers are hoping to better educate drone pilots about the harm flying too close to the Oregon islands can cause. Most simply don’t know, she said.
Second, Oregon is planning to have new rules governing where you can fly by summer 2022, via Senate Bill 109, which recently passed the state Legislature and is awaiting Gov. Kate Brown’s signature. The bill gives Oregon authority to draft rules regulating where pilots can take off and land with a drone on the ocean beaches, headlands and all other state parks.
“We’d draft rules and then put them out for public comment,” said Chris Havel, spokesman for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. “Our hope is to get our recommendations back to the commission for approval by February or April so they can be in place for the 2022 season.”
Havel said the rules would be drafted by a working group that includes members of the drone and wildlife community.
“We know this is having a dramatic effect on survival of birds and chicks,” he said. “That’s why we’re trying to get on top of this as quickly as we can.”
Current rules lack teeth
Currently, rules governing drones around the Oregon islands are flimsy.
It’s recommended that operators keep unmanned aircraft at least 500 feet from any of the islands, but it’s difficult to enforce and doesn’t have legal teeth.
“It is not illegal to fly a drone over a wildlife refuge,” Harris said. “The 500-foot rule is just a recommendation. Flying over a wildlife refuge is legal.”
However, it is illegal for the drone to disturb or harm a nesting bird in a wildlife refuge and a person can be fined.
Leading with education
Even so, it’s hard to enforce given the size of the coast, and the fact that most drone operators can launch from any public beach or wayside. And in most cases, Harris said, the disruption isn’t intentional.
“Almost universally, the people we approach have no idea about the rules or that they might be causing a disturbance,” Harris said. “When we tell them, they’re almost all open-minded and don’t want to have a negative impact on the birds.”
Harris had two pieces of advice. First, in a perfect world, drone operators wouldn’t fly near the Oregon islands during nesting season. The best months to fly near the islands would be September, October and November, all the way into March 1, she said.
Failing that, she said, drone pilots should follow recommendations and stay at least 500 feet – if not more – from the islands during the summer nesting season. And if birds appear agitated by the drone, pilots should ground their aircraft.
“We want people to get out and enjoy this hobby,” Harris said. “We just want them to know how important it is to stay away from the islands and nesting sites, because it can do real damage and I don’t think anyone wants that.”