Why You Can't Fly a Drone at Yellowstone

The National Park Service says its ban on drones doesn't just apply to Yosemite.

After Yosemite National Park announced it was grounding drone flights earlier this week, aspiring pilots may have set their sights on Yellowstone. But Old Faithful flyovers will have to wait too — along with any other plans to launch a drone from a national park.

"We all operate under the same policy," said National Park Service spokesman Jeff Olson. "Our policy calls [drone flying] a new recreational activity, and new recreational activities are not allowed until they're looked at, reviewed, and either approved or we decide to not allow them."

For now, that approval has not yet come.

"I don't have a firm timeline" of when a decision will be made, Olson said.

Following the Yosemite announcement, NPS noted that drones had also been harassing bighorn sheep in Zion National Park. Punishment for flying in the park, said the agency, could entail up to six months in prison and $5,000 in fines.

But most parks are unlikely to mete out that punishment, at least right away. "There's discretion at several places along that whole continuum," Olson said. "A lot of that plays into whether someone [has been] asked to stop."

And while the rules are universal, "only a handful of parks have taken direct action" to publicize the ban, Olson said. Those parks, like Yosemite and Zion, are ones that have experienced frequent issues with drones and needed to make their policies clear.

A recent Forbes article called into question the authority of NPS to stop drones, citing the aircraft regulation it used to justify the ban. Earlier in that regulation, it defines aircraft as those that carry human passengers, which would seem to exclude drones.

But, said Olson, federal regulations also allow NPS to police such things as "visitor safety, nuisances, and disorderly conduct. Those apply no matter if you are a person walking in the park or flying unmanned aircraft."