Written by Alexa Martinez, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife Biologist/Photo of Windmill Pond by Doug Peterson

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has several methodologies for trying to find the best ways to collect data to help provide a biological assessment for management decisions. Whether it’s walking transects through a field, driving an airboat on Malheur Lake surveying for shorebirds, flying in a small aircraft to count waterfowl, or conducting point-count surveys from a fixed position, all these methods help improve the quality of our surveys that provide important information, not just to Malheur NWR, but also to any biological program. As scientists, we are always looking for the latest and best practices to improve efficiency and accuracy, as well as finding affordable ways to collect data.

Today, the use of drones for biological assessments is becoming a very popular way to collect data. Through the Department of the Interior (DOI), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers classes to become a certified drone pilot for DOI. This certification requires potential pilots to take certain online aviation safety courses as well as a knowledge test. Once tests are completed, each individual needs to attend a week-long course through DOI to learn the ins and outs of flying a drone and to understand the laws and regulations one needs to be aware of before flying. Only after that are individuals certified as unmanned aircraft system (UAS) pilots for DOI.

At Malheur NWR, currently we use drones to take aerial photos for our carp biomass study, which will help provide valuable information about how carp affect aquatic vegetation. We are now trying to move forward using drone technology for bird monitoring surveys. One potential application is to use drones to monitor colonial nesting birds on Malheur Lake. In the past, these birds were monitored via small-plane flights once every 3 years. These flights are very spendy; the lengthy intervals between surveys limits the data we’re able to collect. This is why we would like to use drones to see if we can monitor densities of colonial nesters on the lake. Some of our neighbor National Wildlife Refuges in Eastern Idaho are using drone technology to monitor their American White Pelican colonies and are finding success. Granted, there are downsides to using drones. They have limited battery life and memory space, but despite these drawbacks, in the end drones are an amazing tool. Drones are not as invasive to wildlife and are more accessible when needed compared to a small aircraft or airboat, are cheaper and have multiple applications that assist biologist staff in fulfilling the Refuge’s mission.