State Considers New Drone Rules To Protect Nesting Birds

by Joe Liebezeit, Staff Scientist & Avian Conservation Manager

The Oregon Coast supports over 1 million nesting seabirds as well as endangered species like the Snowy Plover. The iconic spectacle of 60,000 Common Murres nesting on Yaquina Head is one dramatic example of the importance of our coast to nesting birds. At the same time, people love to visit the coast, and visitation is steadily increasing. In recent years recreational drone use has skyrocketed, reflecting a nationwide trend. This has, in turn, led to increasing disturbances to birds, marine mammals, and other wildlife. The Oregon Black Oystercatcher Project, a community science program coordinated by Bird Alliance of Oregon, documented a weekly average of over three drone disturbances at active oystercatcher nests across the coast in 2021, up from previous years.

Black Oystercatcher and chick
Black Oystercatchers, photo by Michael Klotz

Such disturbances have been documented to negatively impact nesting success of many bird species. In one dramatic case in California last year, a drone crash caused an entire colony of 3,000 Elegant Terns to abandon 1,500 active nests. In addition to wildlife impacts, drone usage can negatively impact the peaceful and safe experiences visitors to state parks and the coast seek when exploring and enjoying Oregon’s natural places. To minimize such impacts we need to ensure drone rules are informed by the best science and take a precautionary approach given that recreational drone use is a relatively new phenomena and impacts are just beginning to be understood.

Currently, Oregon State Parks is leading a public process to develop drone rules for state parks and coastal areas as mandated by Senate Bill 109. This presents a golden opportunity to better manage drone take-off and landing areas in state parks and coastal areas that they manage. An important nuance is that regulations only apply to take-off and landing locations. The FAA has separate regulations for drones while airborne.

We appreciate the opportunity for public comment and the establishment of the drone Rules Advisory Committee (RAC) to bring in outside stakeholders to steer the development of rules. However, to date, there have been some serious flaws with this process. The initial RAC did not include representatives from Oregon conservation organizations, recreational user groups (other than drone users), or Tribal nations, all of which have interests affected by the rule. In addition, the RAC did not include representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages wildlife in the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge. Only after an outcry from the public about this lack of representation did State Parks add two conservation representatives (including from Bird Alliance of Oregon) to the RAC. While this has made the process more of a challenge, we are now at the table urging recommendations to minimize wildlife disturbance while still allowing appropriate drone use.

Most importantly, we recommend that drones be prohibited in all State Park–administered lands with the exception of designated take-off and landing areas. This has many advantages to the current draft rule which would, conversely, allow drone use unless prohibited. First, having designated allowable areas would better safeguard wildlife since it would improve the ability to minimize wildlife disturbances by better limiting take-off and landing areas and thus how far and wide drones can move when in the air. Second, this recommendation is consistent with current State Parks regulations with respect to other activities that may have conservation impacts. Hunting, fishing, collecting living/non-living natural products from the ocean shore, and even the use of metal detectors is prohibited except in designated areas. Why should drone use be an exception? Finally, from a law enforcement perspective, it would be easier to regulate drone use in designated allowable areas. Everywhere else would be clearly illegal. We recommend State Parks create an independent technical working group to determine appropriate designated drone take-off and landing areas that minimize wildlife, cultural, and recreational impacts based on the best available science.

Finally, for areas that are approved for drone use, we recommend common sense measures including no drone take-offs or landing within 100m of any observed wildlife, drone use be discontinued if repeated wildlife disturbance events occur in the same location, and seasonal allowance in areas outside of the nesting season.

Please stay tuned for public comment opportunities on this issue in the coming weeks.