There's more than one way to observe wildlife these days.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is working with University of Montana wildlife researchers to test the use of a drone this month to document the presence of moose calves in northeast Washington.

A contractor for the university will fly an "unmanned aerial system" equipped with a video camera during the week of Dec. 11-15 over radio-collared cow moose on public and private lands in Stevens, Pend Oreille and Spokane counties.

Rich Harris, a WDFW wildlife scientist, said the goal of the drone project is to document the presence of moose calves more safely, more efficiently, and less expensively than is possible with traditional wildlife surveying methods.

Given the first thought a person might have when they hear the drones will be flown over private land is privacy concerns, but researchers say all have given permission for the drone to fly over their lands. The craft will be flown over U.S. Forest Service lands and timberlands owned by Hancock Forest Management, Stimson Lumber Company, and Inland Empire Paper Company.

By flying the drone over 35 collared moose cows, researchers expect to be able to document the presence of nearby calves. Harris said the only other ways to conduct such research – through close-up approaches on foot or from a helicopter – are less safe, require more time, and are more expensive than using a drone.

Harris said the drone would be flown only during daylight hours, but Harris also said researchers expect the drone will be less stressful to moose than traditional ground monitoring.

Researchers are basing that assumption on the fact that moose have no overhead predation threats.

If researchers confirm that the moose in this study are not substantially disturbed by the drone and calves are successfully documented, it could open the door for drones to be used for other wildlife research in Washington.

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