When policy is made around uses and activities on national wildlife refuges and other public lands, it’s generally based on sound science or educated observations. As drone technology has become more popular and inexpensive, hobbyists and casual drone pilots have caused major issues with everything from fire and accident response to interfering with commercial flight paths. On public lands, the concern is simple: Large flying objects potentially scare off nesting birds and other animals by mimicking the behavior of avian predators.
A few miles from the border of Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to several species of critically endangered birds, an unauthorized drone crashed into another part of the coastal marsh and provoked thousands of nesting Elegant terns to abandon more than 1,000 eggs, none of which are viable.
While this generation of terns may be lost, they are not considered a threatened or endangered species. But it very easily could have been a colony of endangered Least terns (which nest in the same area) or plovers, dealing a massive blow to the conservation efforts undertaken over the past 40 years. This is a sad reminder of what happens when rules on public lands, especially those designated as a safe haven for wildlife, are not followed. Whether it’s a wayward drone or an enthusiastic unleashed dog, it only takes one incident to have massive implications for the future of a species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prohibits the “unauthorized operation of aircraft” at altitudes that might result in wildlife harassment, or the “unauthorized landing or take-off on a national wildlife refuge,” but reduction in personnel means enforcement and prevention isn’t always possible, and wildlife preserves run by states or local municipalities also do not have the resources to prevent these incidents.
National wildlife refuges are places for wildlife to seek refuge.
Many national wildlife refuges serve as some of the last remaining habitats available for endangered and threatened species, and it’s necessary to protect other public lands bordering them. The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve protects part of the only coastal wetland ecosystem remaining in Southern California, and all sorts of wildlife move between the borders of the refuge and the reserve. Let’s ensure that these areas stay a safe place for wildlife and people alike to enjoy— recreate responsibly, keep your dog on leash, and leave the drones at home.