Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Hiker’s Role In Disturbing The Wild

scarlet tanagerA 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.

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Mike Lynch is a staff writer and photographer for the nonprofit Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly news magazine with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues. Mike’s favorite outdoor activities include paddling, hiking, fishing and backcountry skiing. In 2011, he paddled the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine. From 2007 until 2014, Mike worked as an outdoors writer and photographer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in Saranac Lake. Mike welcomes story ideas and can be reached at

8 Responses

  1. Marc Wanner says:

    Well, yeah, but it’s complicated. Reduce the number of hikers in the Adirondacks, and you reduce the number of voters ready to support wilderness expenditures.

    Then there’s the issue of concentration of users. Is it better to keep users packed into a relatively small geographic area, or to try to encourage people to spread out into areas that are lightly used at present?

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  2. terry says:

    beside my bird feeder i have never seen a wider variety or higher concentration of birds than on the Cascade summit

    • scottvanlaer says:

      That is surprising and very different than you would expect and not what I have observed there. I will say I have detected quite a few Bicknell’s thrush on the ridge to Porter but not as many on Cascade proper. You would not expect species richness to be greater on an alpine summit in general just because there are fewer species that utilize that environment here in the ADK. I wonder if all the human use has created a habitat that is better for generalists, perhaps all the people dropping little bits of food? Interesting observation. I will pay more attention to birds on Cascade now.

      • terry says:

        I think it has to do with the amount of food dropped and thrown to the birds on the summit. Birds are some of the best opportunity feeders. they never show up in your yard without a feeder

    • Boreas says:

      Many birds such as warblers primarily eat insects and follow them through the day and through the season. Many insects when they hatch or breed are programmed to fly upward in order to disperse. This pushes them up mountains, and the birds follow. Weather (sun, wind, and temp) also has an effect on insect hatching and migration. But all of these factors can be quite inconsistent. One day there may be hundreds of birds of many species on a summit. The next day, none.

  3. Curt Austin says:

    Well, if Ms. Glennon’s gut reaction is correct, and this harm to wilderness must be rectified, the easiest first step is to prohibit dogs and to require that parents keep their children from screaming. Next, the parking spaces along Route 73 can be reduced. Close down the shuttle bus to Marcy Field. ADK’s parking lot is way too big, of course. We certainly don’t need hundreds of miles of crisscrossing trails, do we? A real permit system could be introduced; perhaps EZ-Pass could be implemented.

    That’s the point of this article, right? Reduce the human infection. Those who can get in will then see lots of bobcats. I’d like to see a bobcat. Let’s do it, starting with the dog thing.

    I’m being facetious, of course. Dogs have a powerful lobby; some of these actions might be taken, but not that. It’s a contentious subject we’ll never get past. I’m going to get hammered just for mentioning it. Imagine the non-dog folks who believe they will be denied a hike so that dogs can go.

    This is not a diatribe against dogs or children (poor parenting, yes). I’m not sure I can explain – it’s a gut reaction to the way issues are raised and discussed, with some folks trying to embed religious-like principles, while avoiding discussion of the truly difficult choices and their ramifications. There’s a baseline hypocrisy we all share: we define wilderness as “a place with no people except me (and my dog)”.

    Really, what do we want to do – can do – about this, if anything?

    I think the prohibition of big groups was good. Forbidding fires was an unfortunate but good idea. Bear canisters are wonderful. The goofy permit system was a bad idea; a real system should be the last resort. I’m not sure further action is desperately required, but prohibiting dogs really would be next (ducking). I really do think some education is required about keeping quiet on the trail. I’ve previously written about excessive clicking of trekking poles. The concentration on Route 73 – sacrificing Cascade – is probably better than moving people to, say, the Upper Works.

    • M.P. Heller says:

      What if we let the dogs run free and put leashes and muzzles on the children instead? We haven’t tried that combination yet.

      (This MIGHT be sarcasm) 🙂

  4. Larry says:

    Would there be as much concern for elephants if we hadn’t seen them in a zoo? Is that poor animal in the zoo giving his life for education and the protection of his brethren in the wild? If so with animal specimens, does that relate to this issue? Who cares more about the wild – those who visit or those who don’t? This is a slippery slope; sacrifice some for the many? Closing down trails, restricting use unreasonably is not the answer. Finding the balance is difficult but the key.

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