New approach gauges recreation’s potential impact on wildlife

By Julia John

An American bison gazes at the camera. Non-consumptive users of natural areas can disturb wildlife, but by adapting landscape ecology techniques, researchers say, managers can understand and mitigate their broad-scale impacts. ©Kevin Gutzwiller

Millions of recreationists take to the trails of America’s natural spaces every year to hike, bike, ski and picnic, but even if they take only photographs and leave only footprints, these visitors have the potential to negatively affect wildlife. Borrowing from landscape ecology, scientists have outlined a novel approach to model and mitigate non-consumptive recreation disturbance to sensitive species.

“There are all kinds of ways the presence of people in the environment can influence wildlife,” said Kevin Gutzwiller, lead author on the paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Humans engaging in non-consumptive recreational activities in natural areas can displace many animals from their habitat, raise their caloric expenditure, damage their resources, attract their predators, disrupt their behavior and decrease their survival, said Gutzwiller, a Baylor University biology professor. Past research has looked at these disturbances, he said, but at scales much smaller than most animals’ territories. Consequently, current management approaches may be off the mark — managers may be over- or under-estimating the level of recreation disturbance depending on the situation, he said.

“We wanted to start assessing and trying to manage wildland recreation disturbance at broader spatial scales,” Gutzwiller said.

To do so, his team turned to technology that landscape ecologists typically use. Over the last couple years, Gutzwiller and co-authors Ashley D’Antonio, an Oregon State University assistant professor, and Christopher Monz, a Utah State University professor, used three spatial software systems to determine how much disturbance recreationists were causing on the landscape. With data from hikers carrying GPS units at three national parks — Acadia National Park in Maine, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming — they quantified trail use disturbance in terms of the number of hikers and the density of informal trails.

Combining such recreation disturbance metrics with wildlife data would enable managers to model how visitors might impact species’ occupancy or reproduction, the biologists suggested.

Researchers have yet to obtain both broad-scale disturbance and wildlife data from the same locations, so Gutzwiller and his colleagues are trying to do so to implement their new technique.

But the systems they used did effectively characterize the degree of recreation disturbance on the landscape, Gutzwiller said, opening another avenue for decision makers to manage this type of disturbance and support both wildlife species and recreation access in a sustainable way.

“I think it has the potential to help all species,” he said.

Julia John is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact her at jjohn@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about her article.

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