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Can You Fly a Drone in a Wildlife Management Area?

Throughout the world are Wildlife Management Areas or WMAs, which are protected lands for wildlife. You’re not sure what the rules are for flying a drone in or around a Wildlife Management Area, and you want to be positive before you launch.

Can you fly a drone in a Wildlife Management Area?

Flying a drone in a Wildlife Management Area is prohibited according to the rules of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Although states enforce these laws, Wildlife Management Areas are federally protected and you’re breaking federal law if you launch, land, or operate your drone in a Wildlife Management Area.

If you’re not sure what a Wildlife Management Area is or how to find one, we’ll talk about that ahead.

We’ll also delve deeper into the rules on using a drone around a Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and the punishments, so make sure you keep reading!

What is a Wildlife Management Area? How do I find them?

Let’s begin with a definition. A Wildlife Management Area or WMA is a protected region for animals to engage in recreational activities or be actively conserved.

A Wildlife Management Area, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service:

“…Is synonymous with a national wildlife refuge or a game preserve.”

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Of course, a Wildlife Management Area can be more than wildlife refuges or game preserves but also swamps, snow-capped summits, deserts, beaches, and forests.

A Wildlife Management Area is not exclusively a conservation area, and it’s separate from seashores (even though Wildlife Management Areas can include beaches), monuments, National Forests, and National Parks.

Wildlife Management Areas in the United States

Many states across the US have Wildlife Management Areas, but not all.

Here is a list of states that have at least one Wildlife Management Area:

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Iowa
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia
  • Illinois

Wildlife Management Areas in other parts of the world

For our international readers, Tanzania has 22 known Wildlife Management Areas, New Guinea has 12, and New Zealand has 11.

Locating Wildlife Management Areas

How do you know when you’re approaching a Wilderness Management Area with your drone?

If you live and fly in the US at least, you can use a very handy interactive map, which was put together by drone fleet management software brand Aloft and the FAA

If you see a Wilderness Management Area in your neck of the woods, whether that’s where you live or where you plan to travel to fly your drone, then you better keep reading to the next section…

Are you allowed to fly a drone in a Wildlife Management Area?

Now that you understand what a Wildlife Management Area is, what is the policy on drones flying around these areas?

Drones are barred from Wildlife Management Areas throughout the US. That’s according to The Wilderness Act of 1964.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 was passed by the 88th Congress and is also known as the Wilderness Act.

The act was created:

“…to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition.”

The Wilderness Act of 1964

It was like Congress at the time had a crystal ball, although we doubt they could have predicted the rate of urbanization as well as the technological advancements that would transfer us from the 20th into the 21st century.

In the section of the Wilderness Act entitled Prohibition of Certain Uses, Subsection C, the rules on drone use are made quite clear.

“Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.”

Wilderness Act

Now, drones aren’t mentioned by name in the Wilderness Act since commercial drones wouldn’t come about until the 2000s, but drones do count as a “form of mechanical transport” and are thus prohibited.

Of course, there do exist exceptions, which are outlined in the Special Provisions section of the Wilderness Act.

The Secretary of Agriculture would have to approve of the use of a drone or any other vehicle barred by the act.

If a drone is doing surveying that can preserve the wilderness in the environment, then it may also be permitted to fly in a Wildlife Management Area.

However, those are the only exceptions, which doesn’t leave much wiggle room at all for recreational pilots. Commercial pilots might be allowed to fly, but we would say don’t count on it!

What happens if you get caught flying a drone in a Wildlife Management Area?

The Wilderness Act doesn’t specify anything about punishments for disobeying its rules, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a crime to fly in a Wildlife Management Area. It absolutely is.

While we couldn’t find any information about what kinds of penalties you’d face, we’d imagine you’ll be fined and possibly have to spend time behind bars as well.

As for how much the fine would be, that’s at the discretion of the Wildlife Management Area.  At the very least, you could be fined several hundred dollars, and at most, several thousand, possibly up to $5,000 or more.

Jailtime would be built into your penalty as well, at least six months. Less time in jail could be a possibility, but then again, so could more.

You would also likely have your drone confiscated from you.

You’ll recall that the Wilderness Act is enabled by Congress, so it’s a federal act. Federal crimes are quite weighty.

That said, your first charge likely wouldn’t be terribly severe. If you make a habit out of flying in Wildlife Management Areas, that’s when you could face stiff fines of several thousand dollars to more than six months in jail, possibly a year or more.

Serious crimes stick on your record for longer, which can affect every other element of your life. You could find it very difficult to get an apartment or home as well as a job. Obtaining a lease for a car or a down payment on a house could also be impacted.  

Conclusion

Flying a drone in a Wildlife Management Area is strictly forbidden, and that goes for launching or landing a drone as well.

The reason that The Wilderness Act of 1964 was created was to eke out portions of land and set these aside for animal conservation.

Congress at the time recognized that technology was swiftly moving, industrialization was expanding, and that none of these lands might exist without their invention.

In the more than 50 years since the Wilderness Act’s creation, that has only become truer.

You can fly your drone in many areas, including parks, forests, and even some state parks. Leave the Wildlife Management Areas to the animals that need it, especially as so many species today are endangered. It’s the right thing to do!

References:
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (link)
Wilderness Areas of the United States (link)
The Wilderness Act of 1964 (link)