Cows Have a New Enemy: Drones

Terrifying livestock with flying robots is a thing now, and in Utah it may soon become a crime.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Cows don’t like drones. They’re loud, low-flying, and—in the hands of pranksters—dangerous.

But help is on the way after a unanimous vote in Utah’s House on Monday for a bill to make harassing livestock with unmanned aircraft a crime. If it passes the state senate, it might become America’s first law explicitly protecting animals from this remote-controlled menace. Cow harassment is no laughing matter, Utah lawmakers say; as drones become cheaper, the tiny aerial terrors are reportedly wreaking havoc on America’s pastures.

The bill’s sponsor, Utah Rep. Scott Chew is a rancher. But he first learned of his state’s drone problem when two constituents called to complain of drones crash-landing in their horse pastures.

“I’ve had two different individuals contact me in more urban areas,” Chew told The Daily Beast. “Their horses were frightened after a drone crashed through their fence.”

Sometimes a drone crash is just an accident, Chew said. As remote-control planes and unwieldy quadcopters become more popular, a few unmanned aircraft are bound to touch down among grazing animals. But a particular kind of malicious drone campaign is on the rise, in which troublemakers will unleash drones in “small, fenced-in areas” where animals have less room to run, Chew said. Corralled beneath the whirring blades of a teenager’s Christmas present, animals can panic or stampede.

Chew’s bill would make it a Class B misdemeanor to deliberately harass livestock with unmanned aircraft, all-terrain vehicles, or dogs. Repeat offenders could be found guilty of a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Utah’s Department of Agriculture doesn’t have hard numbers on livestock harassment by drone, but they suspect the cow crime is happening.

“We see people harassing livestock with all-terrain vehicles … People in four-wheelers have chased down and run over calves,” Larry Lewis, a spokesperson for Utah’s Department of Agriculture told The Daily Beast, adding that some trespassers have even shot at cows for sport.

He said the state lacks records on drone harassment because aggrieved livestock owners currently have no way to report drone crime.

“There’s no reporting of such instances now because there’s no laws on the books that would require it. We feel it’s going on, but it’s not being reported upstream to our agencies,” Lewis said. “We feel that if people are using ATVs to do this, it follows that they will start using drones.”

While a small drone might seem less dangerous than an ATV, the unmanned aircraft can seriously harm livestock.

“Chasing cows leads to stress,” Lewis said. “Cows don’t need to run much. [Doing so] can lead to death,” especially if the cow runs through a fence or another structure.

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“A mama cow can end up on the opposite side of a fence as her baby, and then you’ve got an orphan,” Chew said. “Or the cow gets stuck on the other side of the fence and you’ve got trespassing livestock.”

Cows’ fear of drones is no secret on the internet, where a thriving genre of videos show famers using drones to herd cattle. The startled animals usually start stampeding away from the drone, leading some farmers to herald drones as the future of budget-friendly ranching.

Drones might one day have a place on the farm, in the hands of trained ranchers, Lewis said. But, “it depends on how you manipulate the drone. Drones can be used by livestock owners to do legitimate work for their herds in a way that doesn’t spook or stampede them.”

Widespread drone harassment might be “a couple steps down the road,” he said, but it’s a real concern in Utah.

“We see people harassing livestock with ATVs, with vehicles,” Lewis said. “It’s a sad state when people take technology and tools at their hands for mean and unnecessary purposes like harassing livestock.”