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John McCoy: Drone usage affecting outdoor activities, too

Drone technology has come a long way in a short time.

Perhaps, say people in the nature business, they’ve come too long a way in too short a time.

All around the country, people are reporting what I like to call “stupid drone tricks” — inappropriate and even illegal uses of unmanned aerial vehicles.

In Yellowstone National Park, for example, a tourist attempting to get a spectacular aerial photo of the park’s famous Grand Prismatic Spring ended up crashing the drone into the 370-foot-wide, 100-foot-deep pool.

National Park Service officials don’t yet know if the drone, which sank after the Aug. 2 incident, will clog the spring or significantly alter the flow of its 160-degree water. They’re debating whether to mount an operation to remove the downed craft.

It didn’t seem to matter to the drone’s owner that drones had been illegal in Yellowstone since June. According to the Los Angeles Times, the owner reportedly went to park officials and demanded that they retrieve the expensive toy.

And in drought-stricken, fire-ravaged parts of the American West, tanker aircraft attempting to drop water or fire retardant are encountering drones sent up by people hoping to videotape or photograph the fire’s advance. In some instances, tanker pilots have had to abort drops so they wouldn’t collide with unmanned vehicles.

Drones can be beneficial in the natural world, of course. Pest-removal specialists in Louisiana locate feral pigs at night by flying a drone equipped with an infrared camera over the critters’ suspected bedding grounds. They then move in and kill the hogs.

State wildlife officials are painfully aware that the same technology used to locate and kill feral hogs and other wild pests could just as easily be used for deer, bears and other game animals.

No one is losing any sleep over it — yet — but biologists and law enforcement officials admit they’re a mite concerned.

They envision drones being used to locate deer or bears at night, where they could then be spotlighted; to drive deer into ‘killing fields’ where they could be gunned down; and even to serve as mobile gun platforms.

It’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to sink hundreds or thousands of dollars into a high-tech drone and a similar sum into infrared imaging equipment simply to kill a deer or two. Or ten. Or even twelve. If the technology is available, though, you can bet someone would try.

Paul Johansen, assistant wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources, said agency officials are trying to get out ahead of a potential problem.

“As an agency, we are concerned that drone technology could be used in ways that run counter to rules of ‘fair chase,’ the rules upon which our North American model of wildlife conservation is based,” Johansen said. “We are currently considering regulations that would address those concerns.”

Any such regulations would have to first be put in the form of an official proposal, vetted by high-ranking DNR administrators and approved by the state Legislature. If the political winds blow the right direction, it’s possible that regulations could be put into place within a year or so.

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