SALT LAKE CITY — The increasing popularity of hobby drones or unmanned aerial vehicles is creating problems at national parks across the country, including in Utah where someone witnessed a drone harassing some bighorn sheep.
Witnesses told Zion National Park officials that a remote-controlled drone was flying close to the herd of animals on the eastern side of the park. The herd scattered at the approach of the device, resulting in several young animals being separated from the adults.
“I am sure most people who fly drones have no desire to harm wildlife or endanger our other visitors. Many may not even know that it is illegal to fly a drone here at Zion,” park superintendent Jim Milestone stated. “We hope that by educating the public about the reasons behind the restrictions, we will increase their understanding and compliance and help to protect the park.”
On Friday, the National Park Service banned the use of drones at Yosemite in California after park officials said an increased use of the devices was interfering with the "natural" park and posing a potential threat to emergency operations.
At Zion, rangers said they have also seen a large increase in the use of drones within the park, with some visitors complaining about drones interrupting the solitude and others feeling threatened as drones buzz through slot canyons and along exposed trails such as Angels Landing and Canyon Overlook.
"We've just had a huge spike in the use of drones," said park spokeswoman Alyssa Baltrous. "My law enforcement every week is hearing more about drones."
Baltrous said the complaints picked up about six months ago and are steady at three or four times each week.
Park officials say the recent observation of the bighorn sheep encounter with a drone also demonstrates the negative impact they can have on the wildlife, particularly in the spring when many animals are caring for their young. In addition to impacting ground-based wildlife, drones may prevent birds from successfully nesting or to abandon their nests.
A volunteer who spotted the interaction confronted the drone operator and warned them about the illegal activity.
The penalty for using a drone in Zion can be up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.
"Drones can also change the natural behavior of wildlife and lead to unnecessary energy expenditures. This has the potential to affect survival and reproductive success in many species," said wildlife biologist Cassie Waters. “Animals can be injured when attempting to escape or avoid drone activity. We are therefore really concerned with drones, their effect on wildlife, and our ability to preserve the natural environment.”
Several states have banned the use of drones to assist in big-game hunting, including Colorado, Montana and Alaska. Other states such as Idaho say the prohibition of drones is covered under existing rules that ban aircraft from hunting or harassing wildlife.
In Utah, Division of Wildlife Resources Capt. Torrey Christophersen said the state has heard of anecdotal incidences of drones being used to scout for wildlife or harass the animals. So far, there have been no active cases investigated by the division, which he said would carry criminal penalties.
Both Utah and Idaho consider the remote-controlled devices to be like any other aircraft and absolutely prohibit their use in hunting or harassing protected wildlife.