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Can You Fly a Drone in the Badlands?

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Badlands National Park–referred to by some as the Badlands–is a South Dakota national park with sprawling rock formations, spires, and canyons. You might even see a prairie dog or bighorn sheep here if you’re lucky.

Are drones also allowed in the Badlands?

Drones are strictly prohibited at Badlands National Park due to the perceived risk to wildlife they cause. It does not appear that any exceptions exist to that rule. That said, some South Dakota state parks do allow drones.

You may still have questions about flying your drone in and around the Badlands, and that’s fine, as we have the answers.

Make sure you keep reading, especially if you have a plane ticket booked for a trip to South Dakota, as there’s handy info to come!

Can you fly a drone in the Badlands? #

If it’s always been your dream to capture the pinnacles and buttes naturally eroded into the rocks or perhaps the mixed grass prairies that Badlands National Park is so beloved for, you’ll have to leave your drone at home to do it.

The National Park Service or NPS, which manages the Badlands, has an unmanned aircraft policy[1] that makes it thoroughly clear that drones are forbidden.

The policy in full reads as follows:

“Launching, operating, or landing an unmanned or remote controlled aircraft within Badlands National Park is prohibited (36 CFR 1.5 Closures & Public Limits).

Unmanned or remote controlled aircraft, popularly known as drones, may not be utilized in the park. Drones pose a safety risk to both visitors and wildlife. The noise created by drones disrupts the peaceful landscapes that our visitors come to experience. Drones have been known to interfere with the natural activities of wildlife, frightening birds off of their nests and separating bighorn sheep from their lambs. Drones also create a safety hazard when flown in areas frequented by helicopters used in air tour operations.”

And that’s about all she wrote! While exceptions certainly may exist, the NPS does not mention any in its drone policy. Don’t count on any exceptions then.

If those exceptions were at play, they would likely apply to agency drone pilots such as firefighters, law enforcement, and search and rescue efforts, not to commercial and especially recreational pilots.

The NPS also mentions nothing about a permit, so it doesn’t appear that drones have any way of getting into Badlands National Park.

By the way, for those curious about 36 CFR 1.5 Closures & Public Limits, here[2] is that policy:

“(a) Consistent with applicable legislation and Federal administrative policies, and based upon a determination that such action is necessary for the maintenance of public health and safety, protection of environmental or scenic values, protection of natural or cultural resources, aid to scientific research, implementation of management responsibilities, equitable allocation and use of facilities, or the avoidance of conflict among visitor use activities, the superintendent may:

  • Establish, for all or a portion of a park area, a reasonable schedule of visiting hours, impose public use limits, or close all or a portion of a park area to all public use or to a specific use or activity.
  • Designate areas for a specific use or activity, or impose conditions or restrictions on a use or activity.
  • Terminate a restriction, limit, closure, designation, condition, or visiting hour restriction imposed under paragraph (a)(1) or (2) of this section.”

In other words, it’s entirely within the NPS’s rights to ban drones from the Badlands.

Can you fly a drone just outside of the Badlands? #

What if you set up shop within the vicinity of Badlands National Park but didn’t ever officially enter the park’s grounds? Would you still be allowed to operate a drone?

Technically, yes, you would. The NPS only has jurisdiction in the national parks it protects. Once you’re outside of the parameters of a park, NPS rules no longer apply.

However, getting away from the Badlands might be tougher than you think. The national park is 242,756 acres in all. You’d have to use a drone map to determine precisely where the park’s borders begin and end.

There’s not a ton around Badlands National Park except other cities and towns in South Dakota. Some include Wall, Quinn, Wasta, Interior, Wicksville, and Rockyford.

We’re not saying you can’t operate your drone in these places, as South Dakota has no drone laws against it.

» MORE: Drone Laws in South Dakota

Depending on where you fly though, you might need to obtain property owner permission. Never trespass on private property just to get a shot of the Badlands (or any other sight, for that matter!).

You’ll also have to follow all federal and state drone laws. For a refresher, those are:

  • Your drone must be licensed
  • If your drone weighs more than 0.55 pounds, it must be registered
  • Your drone must not fly higher than 400 feet
  • Your drone must be in your visual line of sight at all times
  • Forego flying in inclement weather
  • Don’t use your drone over moving vehicles
  • Don’t fly over crowds

What happens if you get caught flying a drone in the Badlands? #

As the NPS makes clear on its website[3], “Regulations are mechanisms for implementing laws and for enforcing established policies. Regulations have the force and effect of law, and violations of the same are punishable by fines, imprisonment, or both.”

That makes it very clear what you’re in for if you disobey the rules. Fines usually start in the three-figure range as low as $100 but can be $500 or more.

Some fines are even in the four-figure range, which is a lot of money to lose out on for flying your drone.

Imprisonment of any length can majorly upend your life, even for 30 days. How are you going to explain that to your boss?

Learning NPS guidelines and abiding by them is the safest and smartest thing. The United States Park Police regularly works with the NPS, with law enforcement rangers patrolling the premises looking for anything out of the ordinary.

It’s awfully hard to mask a drone, and once you’re caught, you know the punishment won’t be pretty.

Can you fly a drone in South Dakota’s state parks? Which ones? #

If you can’t get in range of Badlands National Park, can you at least fly your UAV in a state park?

State parks are the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks’ area of expertise, not the NPS’s. Their website[4] makes it clear that if your drone complies with FAA guidelines and stays within the parameters of South Dakota state law that it is allowed to fly.

That law applies to 63 of South Dakota’s recreation areas and state parks. We won’t go over all of them here, but if you’re looking for a park with rock formations akin to what you’d see in the Badlands, try these parks:

  • Palisades State Park in Garretson
  • Custer State Park in Custer
  • Bear Butte State Park in Sturgis 
  • Springfield State Recreation Area in Springfield

In addition to the federal and state drone laws we discussed earlier, the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks says that drone pilots must also follow these rules.

  • Only operate your drone during daylight hours.
  • Don’t use your drone to harass wildlife, especially bison.
  • Keep your drone away if you see any emergencies, including those from weather and fires or accidents. Otherwise, you could impede the efforts of first responders.
  • If you’re under the influence of any type of drug and/or alcohol, using a drone is illegal.
  • When you see other aircraft in the skies, don’t use your drone anywhere near them.
  • Never operate your drone recklessly or carelessly.
  • Keep your drone away from gatherings, festivals, playgrounds, beaches, and campgrounds with large crowds.
  • Always respect the privacy of others when using your drone.
  • Allow others who have authorized use of the park to do so in the intended manner.
  • Do “not fly in a manner that causes serious public inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm to any other person, makes unreasonable noise; disturbs any lawful assembly or meeting of persons, or obstructs vehicular or pedestrian traffic.”
  • Do not use your drone “to hunt, kill, take, concentrate, drive, rally, stir up, spot, or locate game birds, or animals.”
  • Never deliver contraband with your drone.
  • Do not use your drone for surveillance and/or eavesdropping purposes.
  • Only operate the drone during daylight hours.

The Badlands, aka Badlands National Park, is a South Dakota national park that’s strictly off-limits to drone pilots.

With no exceptions and a possible federal rule violation on your hands if you disobey protocol, you’re much better off scheduling your time in South Dakota flying and filming at a state park instead.

References:1. Badlands National Park (link)2. Federal Register (link)3. U.S. National Park Service (link)4. South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks (link)


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