Study Examines Recreational Impacts On Wildlife

A Canadian study into how different forms of recreation affect wildlife indicates that animals avoid mountain bikers more than hikers, equestrians, and even motorized travelers. That said, the researchers also noted that they're not sure how far wildlife will go out of its way to avoid these recreational users, as their monitoring was restricted to established trails in South Chilcotin Mountains Provincial Park in southwestern British Columbia.

Additionally, they found that environmental factors -- such as the elevation or the condition of the forest around a camera location -- were generally more important than human activity in determining how often wildlife used the trails.

The researchers focused on 13 species, including grizzly bear, black bear, moose, mule deer, and wolf.

"We wanted to better understand the relative impacts of human recreation in this region, given its increasing popularity. We already know that motorized vehicle access can disrupt wildlife; our initial findings suggest that other types of recreation may also be having impacts," said study author Robin Naidoo, a University of British Columbia adjunct professor at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability.

The research was motivated in part by the greater use of the outdoors during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. How, the researchers wondered going into their study, does recreational use affect natural systems, how much does it disturb wildlife, and does it lead to a degradation of biodiversity?

A press release from the University of British Columbia detailing the study said "deeper analysis of trail use captured by the cameras showed that all wildlife tended to avoid places that were recently visited by recreational users. And they avoided mountain bikers and motorized vehicles (ATVs) significantly more than they did hikers and horseback riders."

The data were gathered through the use of 61 camera traps in the provincial park, which is "notable for its diversity of large wildlife species, including predators such as grizzly bear, wolverine, and fisher, as well as large ungulates such as moose, mule deer, and mountain goat." Combined, the cameras produced 6,285 days of activity. The most commonly spotted animals were mule deer, which appeared 4,070 times.

Sixty-one camera traps were used to monitor wildlife movements in relation to human recreation / Robin Naidoo

Sixty-one camera traps were used to monitor wildlife movements in relation to human recreation / Robin Naidoo

"Despite the diversity and abundance of wildlife captured on cameras, human activities were detected much more frequently," the researchers noted. "Mountain biking was the most commonly-recorded activity, with over twice as many detections (10,017) as mule deer. Hikers, motorized vehicles, and horseback riders all had higher numbers of detections than any wildlife species other than mule deer."

They concluded that hikers and horseback riders had the lowest impact on wildlife, while mountain biking and motorized travel had the greatest.

"While few recreational impacts were observed at the weekly time scale, our finer-scale analysis of wildlife displacement following human activity showed that all species of wildlife avoided all types of human recreational events on trails," the researches wrote. "This temporal avoidance by wildlife was highest for motorized vehicles and mountain biking, results that are consistent with studies documenting greater levels of wildlife disturbance associated with the noise and speed of motorized vehicles.

"They also suggest that wildlife in the study area may perceive mountain bikers more similarly to motorized vehicles than to nonmotorized recreation. The velocity at which mountain bikes travel along trails, as well as the tremendous growth of the activity, has led to concerns on their impact on wildlife, especially after high-profile incidences of conflict with grizzly bears."

What the research didn't reveal was to what degree "wildlife may be displaced from roads or trails by anthropogenic activities. As such, it was not possible to establish whether wildlife were avoiding large areas of habitat through which roads or trails run, or briefly moving off trails into adjacent habitat during times of human use."

Study co-author Cole Burton, a professor of forestry at UBC and the Canada Research Chair in terrestrial mammal conservation, says further research will be needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn.

"This is the first year of our multiyear study of the region. We'll continue to observe and to analyze, so that we can better understand and mitigate the effects of these different human activities on wildlife," said Burton. "Outdoor recreation and sustainable use of forest landscapes are important, but we need to balance them with potential disruption of the ecosystem and the loss of important species."

The study was published recently in Conservation Science and Practice. It received funding from Habitat Conservation Trust Fund, World Wildlife Fund, Lillooet Naturalists Society and BC Parks.