Newly published research in the journal PLOS ONE by scientists at Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Colorado State University (CSU), and University of California-Berkeley finds that human recreation activities in protected areas are impacting wildlife, and more often than not, in negative ways.
Nature-based, outdoor recreation is the most widespread human land use in protected areas and is permitted in more than 94 percent of parks and reserves globally. Inspiring an estimated eight billion visits per year to these areas, outdoor recreation is typically assumed to be compatible with conservation. Increasingly, however, negative effects of recreation on wildlife are being reported.
The authors reviewed 274 scientific articles published between 1981 and 2015 on the effects of recreation on a variety of animal species across all geographic areas and recreational activities.
More than 93 percent of the articles reviewed indicated at least one impact of recreation on animals, the majority of which (59 percent) were negative. Hiking, for example, a common form of outdoor recreation in protected areas, can create a negative impact by causing animals to flee, taking time away from feeding and expending valuable energy.
Studies of hiking and other non-motorized activities observed negative effects on wildlife 1.2 times more than motorized activities. Since motorized activities generally cover a larger area, their influence on animals, while less intense, is more widespread. Motorized activities can result in other environmental impacts such as soil loss and vegetation disturbance, which were not analyzed in the study.
Among the negative impacts observed were decreased species diversity; decreased survival, reproduction, or abundance; and behavioral or physiological disturbance (such as decreased foraging or increased stress). Negative effects were documented most frequently for reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates.
Positive effects of recreation on wildlife were most often observed on birds in the crow family and mammals in the rodent order. These effects included increased abundance and reduced flight responses.
The study also suggests that snow sports may impact wildlife more frequently than other activities popular in the summer, such as hiking and boating. Determining exact reasons for this result were beyond the scope of the study, though the authors said this may be an area to explore for future research.
In other results, the team found that the majority of the research on recreation impacts is conducted in North America and Europe. Most of the articles reviewed focused on impacts to mammals (42 percent) or birds (37 percent) while studies of amphibians, reptiles, and fish, were lacking.
The authors say that the results of the study present an opportunity for a broader discussion on balancing the accommodation of increased numbers of protected area visitors with those of wildlife.
Ways to help minimize recreational impacts to wildlife in protected areas mentioned in the literature include: staying on existing trails, respecting seasonal closures, minimizing noise, not approaching wildlife, and reducing speeds of motorized vehicles.
To view a copy of the article, click here.
This research was funded by a Local Assistance Grant to the Wildlife Conservation Society from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Photo courtesy Sara Bombaci.