Nova Scotia

Drones illegally flying around Cape Breton Highlands National Park

Park staff have been hearing weekly reports of visitors using drones within the park that winds along the world-famous Cabot Trail. 

A special permit is required to fly drones at all Parks Canada sites

The Skyline Trail in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

Drone imagery may capture an unforgettable trip, but staff at the Cape Breton Highlands National Park say the pilotless aircraft is disturbing visitors and having a negative impact on wildlife. 

Park staff have been hearing weekly reports of visitors using drones within the park that winds along the world-famous Cabot Trail. 

But the use of drones at all Parks Canada sites is illegal unless a special permit has been obtained. 

"Most of the cases, it's just to get the nice scenic shots," said Erich Muntz, a resource conservation manager for Parks Canada based in Chéticamp.

"They're very popular, they're used in many places. So it is something that is relatively common."

Impact on wildlife

Muntz said that drones adversely affect wildlife, including birds of prey such as eagles, hawks and falcons.

"They'll actually attack drones," he said. "They will come off a nest and go after a drone, so it can affect the nesting success of those types of birds."

Muntz said several drone sightings are also reported each month at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site.

He said Parks Canada issues about 10 to 20 permits annually for drones to be flown throughout its sites in Cape Breton for things like programming, scientific studies or promotional purposes.

Erich Muntz is the resource conservation manager at Cape Breton Highlands National Park. (Submitted by Erich Muntz)

"We have a permitting process and it does require a bit of review on our part," he said. "We look at the applications on a case-by-case basis"

 Muntz said there are reasons why people are allowed to fly drones in the park while others are not. 

 "When drones are used by Parks Canada and [for] other research purposes, it's under very controlled environments," he said. 

"We know exactly where they're going to be used, the timing of it and how they're going to be used and at a certain height. We know that we won't use them in places where there are nesting raptors, for instance, or, you know, adjacent to high visitor use areas where people might be concerned about their privacy."

Muntz said in one instance, parks staff found a drone that had been left behind at the bottom of a steep gorge. 

Chad Simmons is an ecologist at the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute located in Queens County. (Submitted by Chad Simmons)

Chad Simmons, an ecologist at the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute in southwest Nova Scotia, said drones can be used to catch poachers or prevent bird strikes at airports. 

Simmons said scientists will often use drones to study and monitor birds, but that precautions are often taken. 

"Researchers tend to be highly trained in both drone use and the wildlife species they're monitoring so that in itself is reducing the risk," he said.

"It's also a game of numbers. We're seeing sales of like two to five million drones a year around the world, so that's a lot of potential. And there's nowhere near the amount of researchers with drones going out as there are members of the general public." 

Simmons, who works near Kejimkujik National Park in Kempt, N.S., said most of the drone users he comes across have good intentions.

"They're trying to capture some footage for social media, Instagram, for example, but they're pretty unaware of the impacts they could have," he said.

Muntz said federal staff have been handing out warnings, but the maximum fine for flying a drone at a Park Canada site is $25,000.



Erin Pottie


Erin Pottie is a CBC reporter based in Sydney. She has been covering local news in Cape Breton for 17 years. Story ideas welcome at


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