Aerial Photo Over Wyoming’s Sacred Medicine Wheel Sets Off Storm Of Controversy

A photographer who took an aerial photo over Wyoming's famed Medicine Wheel says the photo was legal because he didn't use a drone. He said he took it with a camera attached to a kite but that didn't stop the angry feedback from people who say he disrespected the site.

Mark Heinz

September 29, 20224 min read

Medicine wheel 9 29 22
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

The legality of a recent aerial photo of Wyoming’s famed Medicine Wheel may raise a question that seems to be one ingredient in a multi-jurisdictional blender. 

Photographer Tim Doolin of Sheridan recently posted a photo on Facebook with the tagline: “The Medicine Wheel glows in early morning light in the Bighorn Mountains.”

The photo depicts the Medicine Wheel in what appears to be dawn’s light, taken from above. Doolin said he used a kite to get the shot. 

The Medicine Wheel sits atop the Big Horn Mountains between Lovell and Sheridan.

If the photo was taken with a drone, that would be illegal because the U.S. Forest Service forbids flying drones at the Medicine Wheel site, Bighorn National Forest spokeswoman Sara Evans Kirol said in an email to Cowboy State Daily. 

But regulations don’t say anything specific about the use of kites there. 

Ground-based still photography is allowed at the site, as long as no artificial sets or models are used and the photographer doesn’t enter areas closed to the public, she said. 

The photo’s obvious aerial angle set off a storm of negative Facebook comments as many accused Doolin of illegally using a drone to take the photo. He also was criticized for allegedly disrespecting the sacredness of the Medicine Wheel. 

“Yeah, not cool to fly a drone in this sacred spot no matter how awesome the angle is. (Drone pilot here…),” commented Christie Christopherson. 

Was It A Kite?

Photographer Dave Bell of Pinedale told Cowboy State Daily that he also commented on Facebook to Doolin that it was illegal to take the photo with a drone. However, Doolin told Bell that he had used a kite, not a drone, to get the shot. 

Bell said the discussion died down after that, and the comments that he and Doolin had exchanged were deleted. 

Doolin on Wednesday said that he’d used a kite. 

“I used a custom kite rig,” he said in a text message. “Winds blow strongly from the west there at the wheel regardless of the time of day.”

Doolin said he had received considerable negative and angry feedback over the photo, but declined further comment. 

Kites can be used to take aerial photographs. This website offers tips for aspiring kite photographers.

Who Has Authority? 

The issue of aerial photography also is confused by the apparent multiplicity of jurisdictions at the Medicine Wheel Site. 

The wheel is thought to be anywhere from 500 to 1,500 years old. There are some claims that it could be up to 5,000 years old. It’s regarded as sacred by Native Americans, and it could predate any of the recognized tribes in Wyoming and surrounding regions. 

Although it sits on Forest Service land, it’s also a National Historic Landmark, which adds another layer of regulation. Such landmarks are under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.

Historic landmarks also can fall under the jurisdiction of State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPO). A SHPO in turn can enter into agreements with Native American tribes if a landmark is recognized as sacred by Native Americans, according to regulatory codes posted online by the National Park Service.

The Wyoming SHPO on its website lists the Medicine Wheel as one of its sites. SHPO officials could not be reached for comment late Wednesday. 

So, Was It Legal? 

The legality of Doolin’s photo could boil down jurisdiction and specific language, former Wyoming Attorney General Gay Woodhouse told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday. 

If no regulations from any of the agencies involved specifically mention kites, then it probably was legal, she said. It could also hinge on whether the Forest Service has sole enforcement authority at the site. 

“If the forest rangers aren’t going to enforce it, then who is?” she said. 

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter