Colorado: Drones eyed for greater sage-grouse monitoring

Public invited to learn more about the use of unmanned aircraft at a demonstration in Kremmling

FORT scientist and Raven-A sUAS pilot Leanne Hanson launches the drone. USGS photo.
FORT scientist and Raven-A sUAS pilot Leanne Hanson launches the drone in the San Luis Valley as part of an effort to monitor sandhill cranes.  USGS photo.
Greater sage-grouse. Photo courtesy USFWS.
Greater sage-grouse. Photo courtesy USFWS.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — State and federal scientists may use small drones to monitor greater sage-grouse in their breeding grounds, and will offer the public a chance to see how the technology works starting next week.

The planned test flights are a collaboration between Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Geological Survey. The agencies will conduct test flights to evaluate whether the small unmanned aircraft can save time and money and offer a safer and enhanced alternative to gather greater sage-grouse data.

The low-flying aircraft may be able to get more detailed counts of the threatened birds, and may even help biologists find previously unknown leks.

“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.”

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

Leks are the traditional breeding grounds where males perform a distinctive, dramatic and complex dance to attract mates.

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.

Colorado’s wildlife managers spend enormous amounts of time in the air every year to gather data. But using low-flying helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft can be unsafe for employees. Wildlife managers estimate that there could be significant savings, 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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently in the midst of deciding whether to place the birds on the endangered species list.

The remote-controlled drones used for wildlife monitoring weighs 4.2 pounds, measures 36 inches in length and have a 54-inch wingspan 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.

Additional information about the USGS sUAS program, including video of the aircraft in flight, can be found at:

For more information about greater sage-grouse from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, please visit:


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