By Mike Koshmrl
Yellowstone officials saw few violators during the first few months of a new prohibition against drones launched from National Park Service land.
But last weekend someone flew his drone into Yellowstone’s world famous Grand Prismatic Spring. The drone is still submerged somewhere in the massive hot spring’s 160-degree waters.
“We have eyewitnesses that saw this unmanned aircraft system go into Grand Prismatic on Saturday,” Yellowstone park spokesman Al Nash said.
“We are trying to determine if we can locate it, and if we locate it, if we’ll be able to remove it,” Nash said. “Our concern is about any potential impacts to the iconic Yellowstone thermal feature.”
The drone operator reported the incident to rangers at the Old Faithful visitor center. Because the incident is under investigation, many details — such as the size of the drone, its whereabouts in the springs and whether its inept pilot will be ticketed — are not yet available, Nash said.
It could be 160 feet down
Grand Prismatic, known for its vivid colors, is 300 feet across and about 160 feet deep. The dimensions, enough to make it the third largest hot spring in the world, cast some doubt on the practicality of retrieving the drowned drone.
National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis announced a drone ban on 84 million acres within his agency’s jurisdiction on June 20. Since that time Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks have reported sporadic infractions.
Both of Yellowstone’s known violators have had watery endings to their unmanned flights, Nash said.
“This is the second time we have had a unmanned aircraft system crash into a water body in the park,” the spokesman said.
The earlier incident, which dates to mid July, ended with a drone in the waters of Yellowstone Lake near the Grant Village Marina, Nash said.
“We are beginning to get an increasing number of complaints from park visitors about people illegally flying these devices,” he said. “I have seen a number of stories about these types of challenges in other parks, and frankly this has not been an issue for us in Yellowstone until recent weeks.
“This is an issue that is really unfolding and evolving for us,” Nash said.
Grand Teton National Park officials have handed out one citation for flying a drone within park boundaries since Jarvis imposed the ban.
Eaten by a tree
Two days into the prohibition a 68-year-old California man camping at Gros Ventre Campground caught his $1,400 camera-mounted drone up in a tree, Grand Teton spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said.
“It was actually his call alerting us that his drone was caught a tree,” Skaggs said.
Skaggs wanted to set the record straight, and correct some inaccurate information park officials passed along that was published in the News&Guide last week. The man cooperated with park authorities and did not annoy fellow campers, she said.
“The other interesting side of the story is the next day [the drone] came up missing,” Skaggs said. “We have no leads on the stolen drone that was stuck in the tree at Gros Ventre Campground.”
Reports also came in earlier this summer of a person flying an unmanned aircraft over bison near Elk Ranch. The incident wasn’t confirmed by rangers.
It’s now more than six weeks since the drone ban, and park rangers will soon be less lenient with those who unknowingly violate the prohibition, she said.
“Although we often try to educate people,” she said, “at this point there is less discretion being used for issuing citations relating to drone use.”
Yellowstone officials pledged to also take the drone issue seriously.
“This is an entirely new challenge for us,” Nash said.
“Think of how many people are going to be on the boardwalk at Old Faithful on a given August afternoon,” he said. “What might happen if someone even had one of these smaller devices and lost control of it over a big crowd?”