Americas Conservation

First hand look at unmanned aircraft for wildlife management

Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) will work together to evaluate whether small unmanned aircraft operated by the USGS can save state wildlife managers time, money and offer a safer and enhanced alternative to gather greater sage-grouse data.

On Wednesday, April 3 beginning at 5:30 p.m. at the CSU Cooperative Extension Hall in Kremmling, interested members of the public can see the aircraft and learn more about its benefits for science and wildlife management as well as its cost saving potential. Representatives from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the USGS and the Bureau of Land Management will on hand to answer questions.

“The aircraft proved successful in other recent wildlife inventory projects conducted by USGS,” said Lyle Sidener, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Hot Sulphur Springs. “We are interested to see if greater sage-grouse will tolerate the craft flying near their leks at the lower altitudes necessary to provide useful data.”

A “lek” is the traditional breeding ground where males perform a distinctive, dramatic and complex dance to attract mates in a ritual believed to be thousands of years old.

The evaluation will occur on both public and private land. Local landowners where flights are planned have been consulted and have agreed to allow the craft to fly near leks on their property.

Currently, to gather the critical data necessary for effective management, Colorado’s wildlife managers spend enormous amounts of time in the air every year; however, data from low-flying helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft is often difficult to obtain and can be unsafe for employees. In addition, wildlife managers estimate that the cost saving potential is substantial, with the expense of unmanned aircraft being a fraction of the costs of manned flights.

Because the small unmanned aircraft is smaller, less noisy and can fly safely as low as 150 feet off the ground, it may provide wildlife managers with views of known, historic, or undiscovered leks currently inaccessible due to snow, mud and difficult terrain.

“It could prove to be an invaluable tool,” said Brad Petch, senior terrestrial biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Manned flights will always be necessary, but if a smaller, less expensive remote controlled aircraft can give us safer access and views we have not had in the past, wildlife will certainly benefit, and so will the citizens of Colorado.”

Greater sage-grouse are an important and iconic species found in Colorado and several other western states. In recent years, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, local governments, stakeholder groups, landowners and land management agencies have been collaborating on strategies to preserve and increase the species’ numbers across the northwest part of the state.

The aircraft, or sUAS, weighs 4.2 pounds, measures 36 inches in length and has a 54-inch wingspan. It carries two types of cameras, is remote controlled and flies from 100 to 400 feet above ground. Its flight duration is 60 minutes can be flown within line of sight up to one mile from the pilots location.

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