National Park Service Wildlife Rules & Safety Tips

Tim Layton Standing Next To Silver Gelatin Wild Horse Print.Tim Layton Standing Next To Silver Gelatin Wild Horse Print. The National Park Service published an article that will help you safely watch wildlife and follow the rules and regulations.

You can help keep yourself and other visitors safe and wildlife wild by setting a good example! Remember to treat wildlife with proper caution and respect. The safety of these animals, as well as your safety, depends on everyone using good judgment and following these simple guidelines.

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Know before you go. Every park is unique and has specific guidelines, including minimum wildlife viewing distances and food storage requirements. Before you head out on the trail, take a few minutes to review the park’s rules. (Great Smoky Mountains National Park Wildlife Policies & Laws)

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Keep your eyes on the road. Vehicle strikes are one of the most deadly types of encounters for wildlife in parks. Roads cut through their habitats or migration routes. Be sure to always follow the speed limits and watch for wildlife that may dart into the road. When you want to stop to watch wildlife, pull your vehicle completely off of the road into a designated pull-out—this keeps wildlife safe as well as other motorists.

Tim Layton - 07/04/20 Rocky Creek Wild Horse Herd - Nikon D6, 600mm F4Tim Layton - 07/04/20 Rocky Creek Wild Horse Herd - Nikon D6, 600mm F4 Give animals room. The best way to stay safe when watching wildlife is to give animals room to move. Many parks require you to stay a minimum distance of 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from predators like bears and wolves. (Check with your park: for example, Olympic National Park requires a minimum distance of 50 yards.) Parks provide a unique opportunity to view animals’ natural behavior in the wild. In general, if animals react to your presence you are too close. If you’re close enough for a selfie, you’re definitely too close. Use binoculars or a zoom lens and move back if wildlife approach you. Let wildlife be wild and observe from a distance.

Do not disturb. Even when you’re farther away, leaving wildlife alone can help your viewing experience—plus it’s the law. It’s illegal to feed, touch, tease, frighten, or intentionally disturb wildlife. Remember that wildlife in parks are wild and can be unpredictable when they’re disturbed or surprised. Interacting with wildlife also can cause harm to both people and wildlife, including injury and disease. Stay on trails to help keep human presence in predictable areas. If dogs are allowed, keep them on-leash (most parks have a 6-foot leash policy) pick up fecal matter and ensure they are vaccinated, and do not use bird calls or wildlife calls and attractants.

Rocky Creek Wild Horse Herd - Nikon D6, 600mm F4Rocky Creek Wild Horse Herd - Nikon D6, 600mm F4 Store your food and stash your trash. Feeding wildlife in parks can make them come looking for more. To an animal, anything that smells like food is treated like food. Access to trash, and even crumbs left on picnic tables can attract them. Once they have learned that people are a source of food, wildlife can become aggressive toward people. This puts you at risk of injury and the wildlife at risk of being removed and humanely killed by wildlife managers. Don’t be responsible for the death of wildlife! Keep a clean picnic area or campsite, and store your food and dispose of garbage in the proper containers. Use wildlife-resistant food storage or trash containers where available or required and make sure they’re securely closed.

See something, say something. Tell a ranger if you come into physical contact with wildlife. Also, tell a ranger if you see wildlife that are sick, dead, or acting strangely, including wildlife that approach you. And when you see people who aren’t following these guidelines, let them know what they can do to be a smart wildlife watcher, too, and contact a ranger if necessary.

Be responsible. Ultimately, staying safe and keeping wildlife wild is up to you! When you go out into a national park, it’s your responsibility to keep yourself, your family, and the wildlife safe.

1. Know before you go. Every park is unique and has specific guidelines, including minimum wildlife viewing distances and food storage requirements. Before you head out on the trail, take a few minutes to review the park’s rules.

It was -4F (-20C) at sunrise photographing Bald EaglesIt was -4F (-20C) at sunrise photographing Bald EaglesGet my free Darkroom & Fine Art Newsletter and never miss another article again. 2. Give animals room. The best way to stay safe when watching wildlife is to give animals room to move. Many parks require you to stay a minimum distance of 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from predators like bears and wolves. (Check with your park: for example, Olympic National Park requires a minimum distance of 50 yards.) Parks provide a unique opportunity to view animals’ natural behavior in the wild. In general, if animals react to your presence you are too close. If you’re close enough for a selfie, you’re definitely too close. Use binoculars or a zoom lens and move back if wildlife approach you. Let wildlife be wild and observe from a distance.

3. Do not disturb. Even when you’re farther away, leaving wildlife alone can help your viewing experience—plus it’s the law. It’s illegal to feed, touch, tease, frighten, or intentionally disturb wildlife. Remember that wildlife in parks are wild and can be unpredictable when they’re disturbed or surprised. Interacting with wildlife also can cause harm to both people and wildlife, including injury and disease. Stay on trails to help keep human presence in predictable areas. If dogs are allowed, keep them on-leash (most parks have a 6-foot leash policy) pick up fecal matter and ensure they are vaccinated, and do not use bird calls or wildlife calls and attractants.

4. Keep your eyes on the road. Vehicle strikes are one of the most deadly types of encounters for wildlife in parks. Roads cut through their habitats or migration routes. Be sure to always follow the speed limits and watch for wildlife that may dart into the road. When you want to stop to watch wildlife, pull your vehicle completely off of the road into a designated pull-out—this keeps wildlife safe as well as other motorists.

Tim Layton at Wild Horses of Missouri - Broadfoot HerdTim Layton at Wild Horses of Missouri - Broadfoot Herd 5. Store your food and stash your trash. Feeding wildlife in parks can make them come looking for more. To an animal, anything that smells like food is treated like food. Access to trash, and even crumbs left on picnic tables can attract them. Once they have learned that people are a source of food, wildlife can become aggressive toward people. This puts you at risk of injury and the wildlife at risk of being removed and humanely killed by wildlife managers. Don’t be responsible for the death of wildlife! Keep a clean picnic area or campsite, and store your food and dispose of garbage in the proper containers. Use wildlife-resistant food storage or trash containers where available or required and make sure they’re securely closed.

6. See something, say something. Tell a ranger if you come into physical contact with wildlife. Also, tell a ranger if you see wildlife that are sick, dead, or acting strangely, including wildlife that approach you. And when you see people who aren’t following these guidelines, let them know what they can do to be a smart wildlife watcher, too, and contact a ranger if necessary.

7. Be responsible. Ultimately, staying safe and keeping wildlife wild is up to you! When you go out into a national park, it’s your responsibility to keep yourself, your family, and the wildlife safe.


Great Smoky Mountains National Park Laws & Policies

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The Great Smoky Mountains National Park publishes all relevant laws and policies on their website.  

I strongly encourage all visitors to review the park's laws and policies, especially for wildlife.  

Approaching any wildlife within 50 yards or within any distance that disturbs or displaces wildlife is prohibited. All fields in the Cataloochee Valley, and the field east of US 441 between the Oconoluftee Visitor Center and the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the fields at Couch's Creek and along Tow String Road, are closed to pedestrians and horse traffic during the months of May and June (elk calving season), and the months of September and October (elk rut). (Compendium of Regulations, Public Use Restrictions, Section 1.5 (a)(2).

Feeding wildlife is prohibited in the national park. (Title 36, Chapter 1, Section 2.2 (2) Code of Regulations, Wildlife protection).

Dogs and other pets (except service animals) are prohibited on any park trail except the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconoluftee River Trail. (Compendium of Regulations, Pets, Section 2.15 (a)(1),

Graffitti/Vandalism, the destroying, injuring, defacing, or damaging property or real property is prohibited. (Title 36, Chapter 1, Section 2.31, Code of Federal Regulations, Trespassing, tampering, and vandalism).

Drones and other unmanned aircraft shall not be operated within the boundaries of the national park. (Compendium of Regulations, Public Use Restrictions, Section 1.5 (a)(2)).

Alcoholic beverages that have been opened are not permitted in the park except designated picnic areas, frontcountry and backcountry campgrounds and shelters. (Compendium of Regulations, Alcoholic Beverages and Controlled Substances, Section 2.35).

Picking plants or removing any object from the national park is prohibited. (Title 36, Chapter 1, Section 2.1 (1), Preservation of natural, cultural, and archeological resources).

Permits are required for all overnight stays in the front and backcountry. (Compendium of Regulations, Camping and Food Storage, Section 2.10 (a) Frontcountry and Backcountry Camping).

Only heat-treated firewood that is bundled and certified by the United States Department of Agriculture or a state department of agriculture may be brought into the park. (Compendium of Regulations, Public Use Restrictions, Section 1.5 (a)(2)) as amended 2/27/15, Firewood.

Bicycles are not permitted on any park trail except the Gatlinburg Trail, the Oconoluftee River Trail, and that portion of the graveled road now existing from the Deep Creek Trail head to the end of the gravel on the Indian Creek Trail. (Compendium of Regulations, Bicycles, Section 4.30).

Metal detectors and mineral detectors are not permitted in the national park. (Title 36, Chapter 1, Section 2.1, Code of Federal Regulations, Preservation of natural, cultural, and archeological resources.).

Permits are required for the following activities:

  • Special Events
  • Scattering of human ashes
  • Commercial photography
  • Commercial vehicles passing through the park
  • Demonstrations including the Sale of Distribution of Print Matter
  • Weddings