Three incidents of illegal drone operation in Yellowstone

Three men face charges of operating drones and more-

Yellowstone National Park. At first, the Park Service took an “educational” stance as they informed people about the new ban on drones in the Park. Now, however, there have been three “egregious violations of this ban.” Three men face criminal charges in these separate incidents.

The reported instance that did real damage, was that of Theodorus Van Vliet. He is from the Netherlands. The famous Grand Prismatic Spring is the apparent repository of the drone he crashed. The drone seems to have sunk deep into the extremely hot water of the vast spring. Its location has not been determined even after a search from the air. The Park Service says they will try to retrieve the aircraft if they can find it and if removal won’t damage the spring or prove too dangerous.

Van Vliet was reported by the Park Service to be “cooperating with the ongoing investigation,” Yet to be found guilty, he is nevertheless facing punishment for breaking several federal laws. The Park Service says he could be hit with “up to $5,000 in fines and/or six months in jail and/or five years on probation.” Of course, that is the maximum. In the past, critics have maintained that lawbreakers in the Park do not actually see significant penalties.

More recently, another foreign national, Andreas Meissner (Germany) crashed his drone into Yellowstone Lake close to West Thumb’s marina. He is charged with violating the ban on operating unmanned aircraft and also giving a false report to a government employee. Thirdly, he is charged with commercial filming without a permit.

The most recent charges came on August 19 when an American, Donald Criswell of Molalla, Oregon, was charged with flying a drone over crowded Midway Geyser Basin and close to bison. Midway Geyser Basin is also where the first man, Van Vliet, crashed his drone into the Grand Prismatic Spring.

The ban is now well publicized with visitors receiving literature about it as they go through an entrance station. One wonders what would have happened by now if the ban, interim though it is, had not been instituted in July.




  1. Barrie Gilbert Avatar
    Barrie Gilbert

    Thanks Ralph for high-lighting a constant threat to our parks from people who want to go one step further to make a quick buck. I’ve seen this is spades with semi-pro, wannabes and professional photographers in Alaska pushing bears to “get the shot”. Time to lower the boom on these guys. Unfortunately the NPS often does not want to “offend” by levying real fines. Look at the travesty of Timothy Treadwell harassing bears without enforcement from Katmai NP. the result was the first deaths to people and two bears from an avoidable interaction.
    Yellowstone does a great job managing bears and people around bear jams so I hope these “visitors” get treated to heavy fines so the message gets out.

  2. WM Avatar

    Olympic NP also bans drones this week:

    According to this very short article, each NP must set its own policy through regulations for that Park.

    Does that mean it is may be ok to fly them in other places, say over the Gettysburg Battle Field, or the Port Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco?

    Ultimately I think this technology is going to be a pain in the butt for federal agencies who attempt to seek compliance with what will be a maze of regulations, and maybe even a role for states. As the technology advances and the distance from the drone to its controller becomes greater (miles away perhaps), it may even be harder to catch violators. Of course, a Park Ranger with a 12 gauge and 3 1/2 shells in #6 shot might aid that effort.

  3. JB Avatar

    I have mixed feelings about drones. I can see huge potential for research (allowing behavioral ecologists to observe animals, or ecologists to track them without radio/GPS collars). I can also imagine using drones equipped with cameras to allow a different type of handicapped access (my brother had MD, and never saw the nation’s best parks because it was simply too hard to travel). I also think about all of the posters here who continuously complain about how hikers, backpackers and hunters affect wildlife. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a method for people to ‘virtually hike’ into an area without compacting soils, pushing elk, bison and bears, and requiring the maintenance of all that infrastructure?

    On the other hand, I’ll admit to having a visceral reaction to the idea of encountering one of these things while in the park. The whole idea just plain seems wrong.

    1. Johanna Duffek-Kowal Avatar
      Johanna Duffek-Kowal

      Well… I have been “virtually hiking” the whole world in front of a TV screen for years – seeing a lot more details and spectacular scenes than I could ever hope to witness in real life, even including explanations, IF I could afford to travel to all those places. So, we don’t really need drones for that. And I certainly would not want to be around if a herd of big animals, like bisons for example, gets startled by some flying/crashing object just because somebody wanted his close up pic… Or “enjoy nature” with a cloud of big, buzzing objects sounding like an agitated swarm of hornets over my head…

      1. JB Avatar


        If interacting with nature through a drone were the same as watching the nature channel, then we wouldn’t have people flying drones in the park, would we?

        “I certainly would not want to be around if a herd of big animals, like bisons for example, gets startled by some flying/crashing object just because somebody wanted his close up pic…”

        If you’re following NPS rules, then a startled animal won’t be a problem–you’d be plenty far away.

        As I wrote before, I don’t like the idea of drones in the NPs at all–but I can see where they could be put to good purpose.

  4. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    I see lots of potential for good too – but in this case, having something fall into the Grand Prismatic Spring, feels too much like people leaving/throwing trash around – careless. Especially foreign visitors to this country! You guys don’t like it when we behave badly visiting your countries.

    The hot springs and geysers are beautiful, and I know I’ve said this several times, but I still have the image of a rusty lawn chair sticking out from one of them, and it was disrespectful, I thought. Maybe they can be used in certain areas only, and for certain purposes only. But not just wherever and whenever anybody wants.

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      Of course, my favorite application for them is policing. 🙂

      1. WM Avatar

        The Seattle police department obtained a couple drones with a federal grant awhile back (disaster response, investigations, etc. but one specific reason not mentioned was riot observation – we’ve had a couple up here involving demonstrations and specifically looting or other destruction of property for all the wrong reasons). Took several weeks of training for operators to learn how to operate them properly for their intended purposes in an urban environment.

        They, apparently, were returned to the vendor last year, though article says they were just “shelved”:–190294501.html

        1. Ida Lupines Avatar
          Ida Lupines

          I meant policing the National Parks for poachers, illegal fire-makers, fires, etc.

        2. JB Avatar

          This guy didn’t seem to have a problem negotiating Seattle:

          1. WM Avatar

            Maybe Seattle cops aren’t the fastest learners, or knowing how to drop one of these things out of sight of the controller into a narrow street or alley avoiding wires is tougher.

            There is a current investigation involving some peeping tom behavior of a drone flyer hovering outside a high rise condo complex.

            I must say I am amazed and impressed by the apparent durability of some of these drones (among other tests a shotgun, though I would bet there are better instruments and shooters than shown in this demonstration):

            1. JB Avatar

              Impressive, for sure.

              1. Nancy Avatar

                I agree JB. What should be a real concern – is drones becoming commonplace (which they surely will if the price is right) ending up in the “wrong hands” for really bad reasons.

                Like car owners, gun owners, should they be registered so mischief (or much worse) can be tracked?

            2. topher Avatar

              18″ barrel with a cylinder bore, meh. Give it one with the old duck gun.

              1. JB Avatar

                “Give it one with the old duck gun.”


  5. CodyCoyote Avatar

    So a few Yellowstone drones get everyone in a dither , but not the 400,000 automobiles- 10,000 diesel tourbuses – 20,000 Harleys…

    1. Nancy Avatar


    2. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      If a car or bus took a nosedive into the Grand Prismastic Spring, yeah, I’d be mad about that. 🙂

      1. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        Prismatic, sorry! 🙂

    3. Louise Kane Avatar

      or the hunters waiting to kill wolves just outside the park

  6. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    One of the problems with our national parks, is that the research idiots get to use use every gadget available to conduct their “research”. Watch for the park service to sanction the use of drones for following wildlife, but try to stop the public from following the example of their favorite researchers.

    One of the problems in Yellowstone, is that upon seeing wolves, bison, elk and every other kind of animal wandering around with radio collars around their necks, the tourists assume that park animals are semi-domestic and can be safely approached.
    The helicopters that park biologists use to collar animals are just large versions of the propeller equipped drones that these tourists are using in the park. Monkey see, monkey do.
    It is quite obvious to any park visitor of average intelligence, that the radio collared grizzly didn’t have his collar attached by remote control from a hundred yards away as the park rules require visitors (and photographers)to stay from bears and wolves.

    It is time for the park to require that researchers follow the same distance rules that they require of everyone else. Monkey see, Monkey do.

    1. SAP Avatar

      Predictable and self-serving response.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan