MISSOULA -- When people play in the woods, wildlife reacts.
While that sounds like a discovery from the Department of Obvious Conclusions, a new study on outdoor recreation around the world actually shows how much more work needs to get done.
“I think what’s really important for people to realize is that recreation and conservation don’t always completely go together,” said Courtney Larson, a doctoral student at Colorado State University who reviewed 274 research projects looking at recreation’s impact on wildlife.
“We can’t just protect lands and say our job is done. We need to think more carefully about where we put trails, how we manage visitor flows, and keep better track of how many people use trails," Larson said. "We need to see where people are going and get a sense of what impacts are happening.”
That’s an important question in Montana, where outdoor recreation provides about $1.5 billion a year in wages and salaries, $5.8 billion in consumer spending, $403 million in state and local tax revenue and 64,000 jobs, according to surveys by the Outdoor Industry Association. Whether it’s watching buffalo on the National Bison Range, hunting elk in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, or fishing on the state’s rivers and lakes, wildlife draw millions of tourists to the state every year.
Larson’s overview found that when humans hike, snowmobile, boat or ride into wildlife habitat, animals have a negative reaction about two-thirds of the time. They may stop feeding, spend energy moving away, act nervously or lose weight, among other effects.
But Larson and co-author Sarah Reed, an associate conservation scientist at CSU’s Wildlife Conservation Society, pointed out that conclusion has some serious limitations.
“What I would say is although this is a growing area of research in wildlife, it’s still relatively small in the whole body of research on wildlife,” Reed said. “It’s growing rapidly, but there’s still a lot more that we need to know.”
For example, more of the projects Larson and Reed reviewed showed non-motorized activity like hiking reported negative impacts on animals than studies of motorized activity did. But they warned that doesn’t mean motorized activity has less impact than non-motorized pastimes.
“A lot of motorized studies in my pool of studies were aquatic – things like whale-watching and dolphin-watching,” Larson said. “We found very few studies that directly compared motorized and non-motorized activity, like cross-country skiers and snowmobiles on wildlife in (the) same area.”
The projects also usually had apples-to-oranges comparison problems. For example, while motorized and non-motorized activity both made animals change their behavior, there was no good way to compare the size of the impact.
“You have to think about the area involved,” Larson said. “Motorized activity covers a larger amount of land than hiking, and that wasn’t something we were able to account for. So impacts might be less frequent but over a larger area.”
A big slice of the projects were done in wealthy parts of the world like North American, Europe and Australia. The United States alone produced 27 percent of the studies.
“Much less work was done in the developing world,” Reed said. “And there’s good evidence that’s where global tourism and visitation is growing most rapidly. It’s important to align research agenda there, because that’s where it’s needed the most.”
Larson and Reed also cautioned their work doesn’t indict outdoor recreation as bad.
“We think this shows recreation of all kinds has important effects in shaping wildlife communities,” Reed said. “Recreation will continue to be important in protected lands. There are lot of benefits to human health, local economies, shaping people’s connection to nature and support of conservation. But we must balance our goals where they are in conflict.”
That could inform how Forest Service recreation officers manage campgrounds or trail use, how National Park Service rangers open or restrict places where animals den or graze; and, it could involve more comparisons not only of competing activities, but activity vs. no activity in a sensitive place.
“It may be the most important decisions we can make is whether to open a site to recreation in the first place,” Reed said. “And we need to recognize the effectiveness of any policy is only as good as its enforcement. The best path forward is to think about how to balance these goals across large landscape.”