During your next walk in the woods, tread lightly. According to a growing body of research, even low-impact wilderness recreation can harm wildlife. Even passive recreation such as hiking, cross country skiing, or bird watching can startle or disturb wildlife, forcing them to burn energy reserves or experience stress. The effect can be worse in winter when animals need every scrap of their energy reserves. This news can be very upsetting for the millions of recreational outdoor users who are following a “do-no-harm” ethic in good faith. Fortunately, a closer look at the details suggests avenues for compromise between recreation and wildlife protection.
A 2003 paper by Audrey Taylor and Richard Knight in Ecological Applications aimed to understand exactly how outdoor recreation was impacting wildlife on Antelope Island, a Utah State Park that is well-used by both mountain bikers and hikers. Taylor and Knight examined the problem from two directions, conducting direct observations on human-wildlife interactions as well as surveying the attitudes and actions of recreationists.
The authors made several key discoveries. One notable finding is that wildlife response to hikers vs. mountain bikers was identical, so the actual presence of humans is what counts, not the type of recreation. An even more sobering finding was that trails create a “corridor of impact” wider than the trail itself: the wildlife reacted to humans 100 meters or more away on either side of a trail, not just on the trail itself. The impact distance of unofficial or side trails was even farther.
Counterintuitively, when wildlife could sense humans at greater distances, the reaction was even stronger. Taylor and Knight attribute this finding to the importance of cover—wildlife feel safer when there is somewhere to hide.
On the human side, most outdoor visitors underestimated their own impact. Half of those surveyed did not accept that their activities had any impact, and most approached wildlife far more closely than animals can tolerate. Many visitors also react defensively to criticism, instinctively blaming other types of recreation, never their own.
Encouraging a connection with nature is widely considered essential to its preservation, so nobody thinks it’s wise to completely restrict outdoor recreation. Fortunately, Taylor and Knight’s results suggest ways for people to enjoy outdoor activities without having an undue impact. Some areas will need to be completely off-limits in order to ensure that wildlife can relax, but in most cases simply educating outdoor enthusiasts about the need to keep a safe distance from wildlife will mitigate the problem. Open areas pose a greater challenge, but trails can be routed to take greatest advantage of natural cover and reduce wildlife stress. Really, though, it comes down to this: stay on the trail and carry binoculars.