A trail weaving its way through the woods to a summit takes up just a minuscule fraction of the wild lands it traverses, which may leave the impression that trails have little impact on wildlife. Research in recent years by the Wildlife Conservation Society suggests that is not the case.
“You’d be surprised by the ripples left by a day hiker’s ramble through the woods,” wrote Christopher Solomon in the New York Times in 2015. “In 2008 Sarah Reed, an associate conservation scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, and her colleagues found fivefold declines in detections of bobcats, coyotes and other midsize carnivores in protected areas in California that allowed quiet recreation activities like hiking, compared with protected areas that prohibited those activities.”
The Wildlife Conservation Society is now working on similar studies in the Adirondacks to determine recreation’s impact on wildlife. Although the studies are not finished, WCS biologist Michale Glennon believes there are impacts along some popular trails.
“This is my gut feeling. Birds and other species that are living adjacent to the Cascade Trail, where six hundred people might go up on a given day, are going to perceive that number of people that go up on the trail that day,” she said.
Potential impacts can vary. Some species might leave the area to avoid people. Black bears, however, might get used to people and become emboldened to steal food.
Given that the High Peaks Wilderness is crisscrossed by hundreds of miles of trails, the cumulative impact on wildlife could be quite large. In addition, there are leantos, tent sites, privies, and summits where the human presence is conspicuous. Keep in mind, too, that animals can sense people from a long distance.
Glennon compared the presence of hikers in the wilderness to a house in the woods. Homeowners typically see robins, blue jays, and doves in their backyards. What they don’t see are birds that live in the interior of the forest and are sensitive to development, such as scarlet tanagers and some woodpeckers. “So it’s not so much that you’ve created a dead zone, but you have sort of changed the dynamic of who is there,” she remarked.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.
Photo of Scarlet tanager courtesy Jeff Nadler.