Hi friends! Today, I’m writing about something near and dear to most photographers here in Oklahoma, especially if you love the outdoors — The Wichita Wildlife Refuge! I’ve invited fellow photographer Payton Wilson of Payton Marie Photography to be my guest for this piece, as I know she also loves the area, values the land that we get to photograph in. Additionally, she’s seen some of the downsides of having photographers in the refuge, and some folks doing photo sessions without a permit there, which is actually against the law. We’ll talk all about photo permits, leaving no trace, and photographers responsibilities for taking clients out into the elements!
The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, located in southwest Oklahoma, is one of more than 556 refuges throughout the United States managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The 59,020 acre refuge offers scenic views from Mount Scott, various hiking trails, wildlife watching, and gorgeous, native prairies that have been carefully preserved. It’s no secret that this vast refuge is home to some of dreamiest and most popular photo locations in Oklahoma. But before you gather your gear and head out to the scenic locations with your clients – did you know you that legally, you’ll need to obtain your photo permit first?
The process to get your photo permit for the Wichita Wildlife refuge may seem mysterious or clunky, but by the end of this post, you’ll know exactly how to obtain your photo permit, when to renew your permit, what rules to follow when photographing, and understand why photo permits for the Wichita wildlife refuge are needed.
Photo provided by Payton Marie Photo
Why do I need a photo permit for the Wichita Wildlife Refuge?
The refuge is maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service (USFWS), and is subject to the appropriate permits for any sort of commercial photography. This includes any photos you’d take as part of your photography business. So, the answer is yes, you’ll need a photo permit if you plan on taking photos with clients anywhere inside the refuge — including Mt. Scott.
Risks of photographing without a permit
Not only do you risk a serious fine (up to $500), you run the potential risk of ruining a client’s portrait session by being asked to leave the refuge, and potentially make it more difficult for other photographers and guests to enjoy the refuge in the future. If you think the fine is a joke, the rangers take it a bit more seriously, and according to park ranger Quinton Smith it does get enforced.
“We do have certain rules and there’s a process to apply… but sometimes people choose to ignore it. Social media has become gift for law enforcement. Those are easy cases, and easy numbers for them. People tag the location, and we look to see if they’ve applied for a permit or not. We can send them a fine.”
The more “policing” rangers have to do involving photographers, the more difficult and pricey it becomes for everyone to obtain a permit in the proper way. According to Quinton Smith, park ranger, the number of applicants has skyrocketed, and so too have the costs of maintaining permits and the refuge itself.
How do I get a photo permit for the Wichita wildlife refuge?
For new applicants, the process is somewhat lengthy — but it can all be completed online and you and your business will be allowed to photograph any time inside the refuge.
- Visit the “Special Use Permit on National Wildlife Refuges” page, here.
- Locate and click the button labeled “commercial special use permit” (photo below of what this looks like!)
- This should prompt the download of a fillable form — this is the form you will need to fill out with your personal and business information.
- After you have filled out the form and saved it, you’ll need to email it to the park ranger, Quinton Smith at email@example.com.
- From there, Quinton will communicate with you on payment and your signature on a few additional documents. Applications will not be processed until they have received your payment, and payment is only accepted via debit/credit over the phone. Payments are typically scheduled for Tuesdays from 9am to 3pm.
A few additional notes about your photo permit for the Wichita Wildlife refuge:
- Your permit will need to be renewed each calendar year, following the exact same process as outlined above.
- The fee for Commercial Photography is a $150.00 application fee.
- Processing the permit will not begin until payment is secured. Once payment is secured and application submitted, it may take up to 45 days for your final permit to be issued.
- The USFWS encourages you to contact refuge management at least three months in advance of your work to begin the Commercial Photography permit process. If you are found conducting an activity that requires a permit without the appropriate permission you could be subject to legal action.
Photos provided by Payton Marie Photo
Photography rules when visiting the refuge
Now that you’re on your way to getting officially permitted and ready to take photos in the refuge, there are some rules to follow when inside the refuge.
- No wedding ceremonies of any kind, except in permitted location
When inside the refuge, no wedding ceremonies or elopements are allowed, with the exception of ONE permitted area. You’ll need to contact the ranger to reserve this area. You may take wedding portraits anywhere inside the refuge, but ceremonies are explicitly not allowed except in the permitted location.
- No fireworks are permitted. This includes sparklers, confetti bombs, smoke bombs, etc.
This is an important rule that we photographers see violated often. In the age of social media, people LOVE to share their latest photos, especially involving smoke bombs. Don’t use them here. You will get fined, even if no one actively catches you while doing it, like many Oklahoma photographers saw play out online earlier in 2021. According to Quinton: “It’s kind of a constant battle and always will be on the refuge. We always come into contact with people who don’t have permits, or we see in the parallel forest people using confetti or smoke bombs … it’s not allowed, and we do give them citations.”
- When visiting/photographing on Mt. Scott, limit groups to 8 or less.
- Stay on designated roads with vehicles — do not off-road or park on grass.
- No guests will be allowed in the refuge past sunset – after sunset, rangers will come around and escort you out, especially around Mt. Scott.
- No large props of any kind, such as arches, large signage, etc.
- Drones are prohibited.
- MOST importantly … Leave no trace.
This is crucial, guys. Don’t litter, stay on designated paths, and don’t disturb plants, animals, rocks that inhabit the refuge. This includes refraining from taking “souvenirs” outside of the refuge. This rule is so important that I’m dedicating the entire next section to why.
Photo provided by Payton Marie Photo
Leave no trace – Keeping the land wild and accessible to all of us
I’ve seen fake flower petals, confetti, glitter, smoke bomb trash … all kinds of stuff out there while I’m photographing. It’s so sad to see that others can be so careless and disrespectful of the area. We have the privilege of taking our clients there and sharing with them how beautiful the area is! We have GOT to keep it clean so that we can continue using the area.
In a conversation with the park’s ranger Quinton Smith, he admits that the process is kind of lengthy, but explains that “[the] mission and focus is firstly wildlife and wildlife habitat, and where appropriate, personal use. Commercial use (such as photography) usually gets the backseat — Our biggest concern is our habitat and wildlife, so managing public or commercial is sometimes secondary.”
“It’s a balance to strike, because you want visitors, but not the harmful effects that come with so many.” Having a leave no trace mindset and following its basic principles when you visit the refuge can help these rangers conserve the land that we love to photograph on.
Being respectful of the land and following rules can not only prevent headaches for rangers, but can also prevent:
- Spikes in the cost of application fees.
- Closures to popular areas in order to rehabilitate/maintain them (like we witnessed with Mt. Scott in 2019).
- USFWS limiting the number of applications that can be approved.
- Fines being issued to photographers.
- Photographers being held responsible for damaging areas of the refuge, or being banned permanently from photographing there.
Go get that permit!
Now that you know the process to obtaining your photo permit for the Wichita Wildlife Refuge, the rules, and best practices when photographing in the elements of the refuge, you should be all set. If this article was helpful, I’d love to hear from you! And of course if you have any questions about photographing at the refuge, or photography in general I’d love to chat more. Get out there and get those awesome photos! Happy photographing!
Photo provided by Payton Marie Photo