Navigating Drone Regulations for Deer Recovery and Herd Analysis in Wisconsin



Hey folks,

Navigating the intricate landscape of drone regulations in Wisconsin and beyond can be as challenging as trekking through the dense Northwoods in the dead of winter. Today, we’re here to light a path through this regulatory thicket, focusing on the legal terrain for herd analysis and deer recovery operations—cornerstones of what we do at Wiscopter.

Before we take flight into the intricacies of drone regulations for wildlife conservation, let’s pause for a quick but crucial disclaimer:


Please note, while we aim to provide a comprehensive overview and understanding of the current drone regulations as they pertain to wildlife conservation and recovery efforts, this post should not be interpreted as legal advice. Drone regulations are complex and can change. As such, Wiscopter and its team, including myself, cannot be held liable for the accuracy or completeness of the information provided here. It's essential for each drone operator, whether you're a hobbyist capturing the beauty of Wisconsin's landscapes or a professional involved in conservation efforts, to conduct their own due diligence and consult with legal experts or relevant authorities to ensure compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.

Now, let’s continue our journey through the governance of drone operations with this important consideration in mind. We’re all in this together, navigating the skies responsibly and ethically, for the love of our magnificent natural world.


Before we dive deep into the tangled woods of drone regulations for wildlife conservation and recovery in the heart of Wisconsin, let’s lay down a solid foundation of understanding about the governance at play. Knowing who calls the shots and how the rules of the sky are crafted will make our journey smoother and ensure our drone endeavors are both legal and beneficial to our natural treasures. Be sure to download and read the documents shared in this article, each provides a distinct viewpoint on what’s permitted.

Federal Level: Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

At the pinnacle of airspace regulation sits the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). This federal body has the exclusive authority to regulate all aspects of civil aviation in the U.S. including the burgeoning use of drones, or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), across the country.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) holds the reins tightly when it comes to airspace usage, emphasizing safety and efficiency. Their stance? States and local governments can’t meddle in aviation safety or manage airspace usage—that’s the FAA’s domain. Yet, this doesn’t mean all local drone activities are off-limits to state regulation. Laws affecting land use, privacy, or public safety, for instance, can still fly under the FAA’s radar, provided they don’t thwart the agency’s overarching goals.

The FAA’s comprehensive regulations are designed to integrate drones into the national airspace system safely and efficiently, without compromising the safety of traditional aircraft operations or the privacy and security of the country’s citizens.

State Level: Police and Department of Natural Resources (DNR)

While the FAA rules the skies, the governance of drone operations at the local level, especially concerning wildlife management and conservation, involves state entities like the Police and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Police: Their role primarily involves enforcement. They ensure that drone operators comply with both federal and state regulations, focusing on the safety and privacy of the public. The state police are the boots on the ground, ready to respond to unauthorized or unsafe drone activities that could harm people or disrupt public order.

Department of Natural Resources (DNR): The DNR’s governance focuses on the conservation and management of natural resources, including wildlife. When it comes to drone use, the DNR sets specific guidelines that align with federal laws but also protect the state’s natural and wildlife resources. These regulations might include restrictions on drone use in state parks, during certain times of the year to protect wildlife or for specific conservation efforts.

Wisconsin’s Specifics

Wisconsin echoes this sentiment but tailors it to the local landscape. Here, using drones for hunting is off the table, as is leveraging them to drive or herd animals—a crucial distinction for those of us in wildlife management. However, the door remains open for drones aiding in the retrieval of already downed animals, provided a slew of conditions are met. This delicate dance between legal and illegal uses highlights the nuanced role drones play in modern conservation and recovery efforts.

Wisconsin also has specific drone laws not directly related to deer recovery or herd analysis. To avoid being redundant, you can find those laws here

Drone OperationLegal in Wisconsin?Notes
Herd AnalysisYes - Considered Scouting, not HuntingSubject to FAA regulations and Wisconsin DNR guidelines. Ensure not to harass wildlife or violate privacy laws. Do not conduct during hunting season to avoid conflicts. Follow DNR-specific statutes for things like using the spotlight.
Deer RecoveryConditionally Legal - Considered Recovery, not HuntingAllowed for locating deceased animals with specific conditions to ensure it's not classified as hunting. Coordination with Wisconsin DNR may be required on specific lands, or based on the scenario. If the animal is located alive, the operator must disengage.

Interplay Between Federal and State Governance

Understanding the governance surrounding drone use in wildlife conservation requires navigating the intricate balance between federal oversight and state-specific regulations. While the FAA provides the overarching framework for safe and legal drone operations, state entities like the DNR and Police tailor these guidelines to address local environmental concerns and public safety needs. It’s this dynamic interplay that shapes our approach to using drones in our efforts to conserve Wisconsin’s natural beauty and wildlife.

Armed with this foundational knowledge of governance, we’re better equipped to explore the specific regulations that guide our drone operations in wildlife conservation and deer recovery. Together, these guidelines help us ensure that our activities not only abide by the law but also contribute positively to the ecosystems we cherish.


Let’s demystify the process of drone operation over state-owned woods with a practical example that illustrates the dance between FAA regulations and state-level concerns, especially when it comes to Wisconsin’s beautiful Department of Natural Resources (DNR) lands. 

The Scenario: A Flight Over State DNR Woods

Imagine you’re a drone operator, eager to capture the untouched beauty of Wisconsin’s state-owned woods from the air. The land beneath your drone isn’t part of a federal reserve, and you’re aware of the rules laid out by the FAA that give you the thumbs up for such a flight. Sounds straightforward, right? Well, let’s peel back the layers a bit.

Flying Over the Woods: That is The FAA’s Jurisdiction

According to the FAA, as long as you’re complying with their regulations — think altitude restrictions, no-fly zones, and the like — your drone is free to soar above the state DNR woods. The airspace is under the FAA’s watch, and you’re clear for takeoff with your eyes set on capturing the serene beauty of nature from above.

Ground Operation & Timing: That is Where State Regulations Come Into Play

Now, here’s where things get a tad more complex. You’ve chosen a spot within the state land to launch your drone and manage your flight. However, state DNR regulations and liability concerns could prompt a request for you to move your ground operations off the state land. It’s a delicate balance between your right to use the airspace and the state’s right to regulate activities on its land.

When Authorities Get Involved

If a passerby or a concerned citizen notices your drone zipping through the sky above the state lands and decides to ring up the police or DNR, here’s how things might unfold:

The officers arrive and find you, drone controller in hand, standing on state land. They could request that you relocate your ground operations off the state land due to those aforementioned concerns about liability and adherence to state regulations. I like to wear my fluorescent safety vest when conducting a mission, so if anyone has questions, they know I am not trying to hide anything.

If this happens near or during hunting season, your intentions will be questioned. To avoid violating regulations from the DNR, understand the nuanced differences between hunting, scouting, and other activities such as recovery. Doing things like using a spotlight to recover a deer will need to abide by DNR regulations.

The airspace you’re flying in is still regulated by the FAA, emphasizing the distinction between air rights and land use rights.

Securing Permission: A Proactive Approach

To smoothly navigate this scenario, engaging with the state DNR in advance to secure agreements, understanding, and permissions for ground operations on state land can be a wise move. This proactive approach helps clarify any potential misunderstandings and ensures that your drone operation is fully compliant, not just with FAA regulations, but with state requirements as well.

Example Takeaways

This example serves as a reminder of the importance of understanding both federal and state regulations when planning drone operations, especially in areas where the distinction between air and land governance comes into sharp focus. Ground operation requirements can be just as complex as the airspace, we have tribal lands, many types of public or state-owned lands, and private landowners. By staying informed and prepared, you can ensure that your drone flights contribute positively to the appreciation and conservation of Wisconsin’s natural beauty.

The Challenges We Face

The patchwork of regulations creates a maze for operators and agencies trying to enforce consistency. For herd analysis, the path is clearer: observing wildlife, given we steer clear of harassment or direct interaction, aligns with the law. But for deer recovery, the terrain gets trickier. The legal framework permits drone use for locating deceased animals, yet ventures into a grey area when animals are only presumed dead. And while scouting using drones isn’t expressly forbidden, the intention behind the flight—be it for general observation versus hunting preparation—can make all the difference.

In essence, the overlap and gaps between federal and state regulations create a landscape where vigilance and adherence to the nuanced laws are paramount. Especially for services like ours, aimed at aiding wildlife conservation and recovery, navigating these regulations requires a blend of legal knowledge and ethical consideration.

Herd Analysis Challenge Guidance

Privacy ConcernsObtain explicit permission for flights over private property. Use flight paths that minimize potential privacy invasion. Notify neighbors in advance about your operation to build trust and understanding.
Disturbing WildlifeConduct operations at the highest feasible altitude to minimize disturbance, respecting FAA limits. Avoid flying during sensitive wildlife periods, such as mating or nesting seasons.
Regulatory ComplianceStay updated on FAA and Wisconsin DNR guidelines specific to wildlife areas. Ensure all operations are within legal frameworks.
Identification and VisibilityWear a high-visibility safety vest and clearly mark equipment for easy identification. This step is crucial for ensuring safety and legitimacy during operations.
Communicating PurposeBe ready to explain your activities to passersby or authorities. Carrying documentation or permits can help clarify the purpose and legality of your operation. Recording operations can also serve as proof of intentions.
Navigating Different Land TypesUnderstand and respect the regulations governing different lands, such as tribal lands, which may have specific restrictions or require additional permissions. Contact local authorities or tribal representatives for guidance.

Deer Recovery Challenge Guidance

Misinterpretation as HuntingNotify local DNR offices and, if feasible, neighbors about your intent to use drones for deer recovery, distinguishing your activity from hunting. Record operations to document your adherence to legal and ethical standards.
Access to State Lands for Ground OperationsObtain necessary permissions for drone operations on state lands in advance. Be flexible and prepared to adjust your operation base as per state authorities or land managers’ guidance.
Public Perception and PrivacyProactively engage with the community and hunters. Explain the nature of the recovery effort to alleviate concerns. Wear identifiable gear and carry information or permits that clarify your activities.
Safety and IdentificationWear a high-visibility safety vest, especially if operating near hunting areas or public lands, to ensure others can easily identify you.
Navigating Legal ComplexitiesFamiliarize yourself with FAA and DNR regulations regarding drone use for animal recovery. Consult with legal counsel or reach out to relevant authorities for clarification as needed. If an animal is found alive, be prepared to sign waivers to clarify that you are not participating in active hunting.
Managing Escalations and Spotlight HoursStay calm and cooperative if situations escalate with the public or authorities. Understanding and respecting spotlight hours (the times just before sunrise and just after sunset when wildlife is most active) is crucial to preventing disturbances and complying with legal hunting times.
Operations on Tribal LandsSeek permission from tribal authorities before conducting operations on tribal lands. Each tribe may have its own set of rules and cultural considerations. Always approach with respect and sensitivity.

Moving Forward

As we adapt to these challenges, our commitment to ethical and legal drone use in conservation efforts remains unwavering. The evolving legal landscape underscores the need for ongoing dialogue between drone operators, regulatory bodies, and conservationists to ensure that our practices not only abide by the law but also contribute positively to the ecosystems we aim to protect.

In closing, the journey through drone regulation is complex, but it’s a path worth navigating for the sake of our wildlife and natural resources. As we continue to explore the skies, let’s do so with respect for the law and the lands we call home.

And remember to watch for deer!

Zac Griesbach
Owner-Operator Wiscopter
Admin of Wisconsin Deer Recovery Drone Operators
Co-authored via Wiscopter Copilot


  • Kevin Pattee
    Posted May 16, 2024 1:17 pm 0Likes

    Hello! I was inquiring if Wiscopter has the capability to perform drone applications of herbicide to control invasive plant species? If so, I would like to know more about pricing, availability and scheduling. Thank you so much!

    • Wiscopter
      Posted May 16, 2024 8:12 pm 0Likes

      Hi there 👋
      Wiscopter does not provide a spray service at this time. If you would like to give us a call I may be able to help point you to someone local.

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