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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Balloons ‘Decorate’ the Desert, Can Hurt Wildlife

   balloons in the desertPhoto courtesy of Betty Mulcahy

Betty Mulcahy, a Volunteer Interpretive Naturalist, shares a story about balloons.

Not long ago we accompanied a few refuge staff members on a hike at Desert National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge is the largest national wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states, covering more than a million and a half acres.  Consequently, we were able to hike to a remote canyon that is rarely, if ever, visited by the public.  

To arrive at the starting point, we drove quite a distance up a rough dirt road that required high clearance vehicles. We finally parked and left the vehicles and then hiked across the desert several miles to the entrance of the canyon. 

Signs of human activity in this area were limited to pictographs painted on rock walls hundreds of years ago. No other signs of civilization existed. Except, that is, for a string of six Mylar balloons trapped by cholla cactus spines.  

“I never go out on the refuge without finding at least one Mylar balloon,” says Amy Sprunger, manager of Desert Refuge. 

   balloons in the desertPhoto courtesy of Betty Mulcahy

Mylar balloons, as well as latex balloons, can travel miles to the remotest locations before descending to a level that allows vegetation to snatch them and secure them in place. These balloons come in all styles and colors depending upon the event celebrated, and they do not decompose with time. We have stumbled across them in the farthest reaches of deserts, mountains, plains and other remote landscapes, and we have wondered what people were thinking when they released them. Some balloons, of course, escape their tethers; but we have witnessed many released on purpose. 

The last Mylar balloon we rescued from the desert was pink and inscribed with the endearments “Princess” on one side and “Birthday Wishes” on the other. Perhaps the little princess found it difficult to hold onto the balloon. Perhaps it was freed on purpose. Whatever happened, it found its way to a remote desert region generally unspoiled by litter and other waste.  

“Countless balloons are released around the world every day,” says balloonsblow.org.  “Numerous nonprofit organizations and charity groups perform mass balloon releases to raise funds.” That’s not to mention private celebrations that feel compelled to release balloons to document the event. These can have major impact on the environment and its wildlife.  

bird hanging by balloon stringPhoto by Pamela Denmon/USFWS

Balloons injure and even kill marine species as well as terrestrial animals such as tortoises and birds. They are frequently mistaken for food, but these materials are indigestible, often leading to fatal blockages in the digestive system. Balloon strings are cause for additional concern, as animals can become entangled causing loss of mobility or strangulation.

We hope that the public will become aware of the litter balloons can create and the hazards to wildlife. 

And perhaps one day when the little “Princess” grows up, she will be made aware of the effects of releasing balloons. And perhaps she will become involved in conservation of wildlife hurt by balloon releases.


I find a mylar balloon every day on San Diego National Wildlife Refuge.
# Posted By John Martin | 12/14/16 6:40 PM

With tidal marshes, trash often pools in areas that I can get to, but balloons can come down anywhere and often its in a spot that isn't easily accessed.
# Posted By Rick Nye | 12/15/16 10:25 AM

Using distance-sampling, I estimated over 11,000 balloons on Ironwood Forest National Monument near Tucson in 2001.
# Posted By Roy Averill-Murray | 12/15/16 12:39 PM

I'm an ecologist in Pennsylvania and spend a lot of time in the woods and wetlands of the Keystone State. I find a balloon nearly every other day. My colleagues and I started posting selfies to Facebook and Instagram with this airborne garbage with the hashtag #fieldballoons with the hope that we can raise awareness on the issue and reduce the number of balloons in our natural areas. Please please please stop letting these things go. We don't throw garbage out our windows - let's try and keep a hold of our balloons too!
# Posted By Ephraim | 12/16/16 5:41 AM
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