Filming Activities in the National Wildlife Refuge System
Visitors recording video from a platform overlook at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland.

In response to ongoing litigation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has changed the way it manages filming activities on units of the National Wildlife Refuge System. National wildlife refuge managers will no longer consider whether the purpose of the filmmaking is commercial or non-commercial. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will not collect application, cost recovery or location fees for filming activities. The change means that permits may not be needed for filming activities on refuges where filming is allowed. However, permits may be required for some filming activity to protect public health, public safety, and the refuge’s natural and cultural resources. See below for circumstances where a permit may be required.

Note: This guidance applies only to filming activities. Permit and cost recovery requirements for still photography are not affected by this guidance.

The litigation does not eliminate the policy requiring a refuge manager to determine if filming is a compatible use, nor does it allow filmmakers (anyone who records digital or analog film or video) to engage in activities not otherwise allowed on a refuge.

General Guidelines

Visitors can film on most, but not all, national wildlife refuges open to the public. At refuges where filming is allowed, in many instances, visitors will not need advance permission and a special use permit if they film in an outdoor area that is open to the public during regular hours of operation, and if they use hand-held cameras or cameras supported by tripods that are hand-carried.

Because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages filming and other public activities on a site-specific basis, we recommend that you contact the refuge directly to:

  • find out if filming is an allowed activity
  • ensure that natural and cultural resources are protected
  • maintain public health and safety
  • determine if a filming permit is needed
When Should I Contact the Refuge Manager About a Filming Permit?

Contact the refuge manager well in advance if the filming that you plan to do involves, or may potentially involve, any of the following:

Filmmaker shooting video of horseshoe crabs on a beach at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware.
  • you plan to use more extensive filming equipment than hand-held cameras or cameras supported by hand-held tripods (more extensive filming equipment could include sets, props, and camera equipment that is too heavy to be hand-carried)
  • the total number of people in your filming group (including camera operators, actors/models, others) is large enough that the group may damage refuge resources
  • the number of people in your filming group and all of their associated equipment and activity may interfere with the general public’s enjoyment of the resources or with refuge operations
  • you would like to use artificial lights or audio equipment
  • your filming activity may violate the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, the Wilderness Act, or any other federal statute or regulation
  • your planned filming activity will occur at times when all or part of the refuge is closed to all or some members of the public
  • you wish to film inside a facility such as a visitor center or headquarters office
  • you wish to film in an area off limits to the public

If you will need a filming permit, or if you are unsure as to whether your planned filming falls into any of the above categories, contact the refuge manager before you film.

A filmmaker shooting video at Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
Special Considerations

Except when visitors are filming casually, special use permits are required for all filming activities in refuge wilderness areas. Please contact the refuge in advance if you wish to film in a recommended, proposed or designated wilderness area wilderness area
Wilderness areas are places untamed by humans. The Wilderness Act of 1964 allows Congress to designate wilderness areas for protection to ensure that America's pristine wild lands will not disappear. Wilderness areas can be part of national wildlife refuges, national parks, national forests or public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Learn more about wilderness area

In addition to the laws that govern management of all national wildlife refuges, Alaska has specific laws that you should know and understand. Alaska refuge managers rely on the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA) and regulations codified in 50 C.F.R. Part 36 to manage filming activities.

For example, unique to Alaska, ANILCA requires that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protect subsistence resources and traditional uses. Identifying and acknowledging the traditional, and in some places, sacred, uses of these lands and waters, is paramount to managing these units of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Please contact the refuge in advance to discuss filming activities if you have questions about Alaska rules and regulations.

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