By Mary Papenfuss
(Reuters) - Two U.S. national parks have banned remote-controlled miniature aircraft from their airspace, saying the camera-toting drones can frighten wildlife and even disturb the nesting habits of birds.
Zion National Park in Utah warned visitors on Monday not to bring drones, saying that the miniature aircraft have buzzed through canyons, scattered a herd of bighorn sheep and noisily zipped along walking trails disturbing hikers.
Zion's action comes just a few days after Yosemite National Park in California issued a similar warning.
"I've seen drones buzzing in a meadow where people want to listen to birds sing or the sound of the wind in the trees," Yosemite Ranger Scott Gediman said.
Both Zion and Yosemite cited a federal rule that allows the use of aircraft in the parks only with permission or for emergencies. The penalty for violating the rule can be up to 6 months imprisonment and a $5,000 fine, according to the Zion news release.
At Yosemite, visitors have increasingly used drones over the past few years, park officials said in a news release on Friday.
"Drones have been filming climbers ascending climbing routes, filming views above tree-tops and filming aerial footage of the park," the Yosemite release said.
Drone tours of the park have even been posted on YouTube, a check of the popular video upload site shows.
Rangers are particularly concerned about the disturbance of peregrine falcons in nests in Yosemite's spectacular granite cliffs of Yosemite, Gediman said. The drones have also created potential hazards for rangers in helicopters trying to rescue stranded climbers, Gediman said.
Brendan Schulman, an attorney involved in drone cases, says he believes the parks are interpreting the regulation wrongly, and that it was intended to apply only to manned aircraft.
"That's not to say regulations shouldn't be put into place to regulate drones in certain situations," said Schulman. "But drones can also be helpful to monitor wildlife and help locate stranded hikers."
Schulman is battling the Federal Aviation Administration over the use of drones by the EquuSearch Mounted Search and Recovery Team, headquartered in Texas, which has employed the unmanned aircraft to locate hikers in several states.
(Writing by Sharon Bernstein and Mohammad Zargham)