Refuge Drone Policy Details

National Wildlife Refuge Policy on Drones (Unmanned Aerial System (UAS)

Areas considered ecologically sensitive—including lands within the National Wildlife Refuge System, host to threatened or even endangered species—can be disproportionately affected by drone flights. Thus it is illegal to operate unmanned aircraft on Refuge property without special permits.
 In addition, if a drone operator stands beyond Refuge boundaries and flies the vehicle over the Refuge, fines can be levied if the drone is observed disturbing wildlife, e.g. flushing nesting birds from an offshore island or causing resting pinnipeds to flee for the water.


The public's use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), commonly referred to as drones, has become immensely popular and versatile, allowing users to equip cameras and obtain unparalleled views of landscapes and wildlife. Drones, being generally small and highly maneuverable, are capable of accessing areas traditionally off-limits to casual observers. They possess enormous potential in any number of scientific applications, but the use of drones can have a deleterious effect on wildlife. Follow these tips for responsible UAS conduct, and remember: Operating drones on refuges is illegal without special permits. 

Know Where to fly

  •  Individuals and organizations may fly UAS for hobby or recreational purposes in compliance with FAA model aircraft laws (link is external). 
  • Be sure to fly your UAS below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles.
  • UAS are considered to be both “motorized equipment” and “mechanical transport” as such they cannot take off from, land in, or be operated from congressionally designated Wilderness Areas.  
  • UAS are not permitted to fly in areas that have “Temporary Flight Restrictions” (TFR) in place, such as wildfires.  You can search the FAA website for current TFRs by clicking here (link is external).  

Protect Wildlife & the Environment

  • Do not fly over congressionally designated Wilderness Areas or Primitive Areas as many people seek these places for the opportunities for solitude and quiet that they provide. 
  • Do not fly over or near wildlife as this can create stress that may cause significant harm, and even death. Learn more about NOAA's drone policy regarding marine mammals here (link is external).
  • Pursuit, harassment, or an intentional disturbance of animals during breeding, nesting, rearing of young, or other critical life history functions is not allowed unless approved as research or management. 
  • Follow state wildlife and fish agency regulations on the use of UAS to search for or detect wildlife and fish. 
  • Launch the UAS more than 100 meters (328 feet) from wildlife.  Do not approach animals or birds vertically with the UAS. 

Fly safely, Stay in control

  • Keep your UAS within your visual line of sight at all times
  • Take lessons and learn to operate your UAS safely.
  • Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations.
  • Fly your UAS at least 5 miles from an airport or backcountry airstrip.
  • Keep your UAS away from populated and noise-sensitive areas, such as campgrounds, trail heads, and visitor centers.
  • Obey all privacy laws.

Follow Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines

  • The FAA has authority over all airspace.  Ensure that you comply with all FAA regulations and guidance for flying your UAS. Information on FAA regulations is available here (link is external). 
  • Do not fly any aircraft weighing more than 55 pounds (total weight, including payload and fuel source)

Further Resources