Wildlife is more sensitive to humans than previously thought

Eli Frankovich Idaho Statesman

We have a people problem.

That was the message Laura Brough of US Park Service in Glacier Bay, Alaska, received several years ago. To Brough, who studies human-wildlife interactions in relatively crowded Washington state, that claim seemed a bit exaggerated.

After all, only 40,000 people visit the 3.2-million-acre park annually—absurdly low numbers for anyone used to rebuilding in the Washington or Oregon Cascades, for example.

In fact, Glacier Bay is only accessible by boat or plane, and 94% of visitors come via cruise ship. But Park Service employees reported increasing numbers and wanted to know how — or if — this trend was affecting local wildlife. So Bruges, an associate professor in the University of Washington’s College of Environmental and Forest Sciences, visited.

“I was shocked at how few people were there,” she said. And I thought ‘Wow, these people have really lost perspective on what a lot of visitors are like. “

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Nevertheless, I agreed to conduct the study. Over the course of two semesters, I collected images from 40 motion-activated cameras across 10 locations focusing on wolves, black bears, brown bears, and moose. She fully expected to find “little or no difference in animal activity between the high-use sites and the low-use sites”.

In a study published this month, Bruges and her co-authors found that if humans were present, cameras spotted fewer than five animals per week in all four species studied. In most cases, this likely meant that the animals avoided areas where humans were present. Second, in the Outback, wildlife spotting dropped to zero every week once outdoor recreation levels reached the equivalent of about 40 visitors per week. Researchers have noticed that in some places where animals are more accustomed to humans, the reaction to human presence is lower.

While it’s just one study, in one setting, the findings have implications for leisure management.

“Our study suggests that if people want to re-establish and reduce their impact on wildlife, they would actually be better off taking busier trails because these sites disturb wildlife anyway,” she said. “I think, unfortunately, there is a trade-off with the human experience and the impact that has on wildlife.”

Developed field

The question of how, or even whether, outdoor human recreation of the unchased variety affects wildlife, Brugge said, is “kind of an emerging field.” Despite their young age, many studies of the recreational environment have shown that animals change their behavior in response to human presence.

Some mammals are becoming more nocturnal, abandoning their usual daily routines in hopes of avoiding human presence. In Montana, coyotes and bighorn sheep avoid the areas where backcountry skiers cut through. Another study showed that reindeer run away from backcountry skiers longer than snowmobiles.

All of this is well documented; said Joel Berger, professor at Colorado State University and author of Better to Eat With: Fear in the Animal World. “

He said the UW study is beginning to answer that question. Berger was not part of Brugge’s study and has not met her, though he has said he admires her research.

“The BRUG study provides the first quantitative evidence, in my impression, of the responses of a wildlife species when exposed to people in these low-intensity situations,” he said.

It also showed variability in species response to human activity, he said, noting that Brugg’s study found that moose were more active if people were nearby, suggesting that the large ungulates were using the human presence as a shield against more cautious animals, such as wolves. This is known as the human shield hypothesis, a term coined by Berger.

“The question is, what does it take for animals to learn?” He said. “To be able to adopt an anti-harassment anti-predator strategy.”

In addition to these questions, the study also raises a dilemma for recreation planners and outdoor enthusiasts, both in remote and urban areas.

Implications for entertainment

Balancing recreation and wildlife is something Spokane County park planner Paul Knowles thinks about a lot.

“As a land manager, you sacrifice some areas, in a sense, so that other areas can be set aside primarily for wildlife habitat,” he said.

When county planners design and build trails, they try to include “wildlife disturbance buffers”. These barriers are built using the best available science on how much the alien species need from humans. However, in an urban setting such as Spokane County, it is not always possible to include this space.

Anecdotally, at least, Knowles said he heard “repeatedly” that once a property was acquired by the county and developed for recreation, wildlife sightings declined.

“We have acquired these protected areas for multiple purposes and multiple benefits, including recreation,” he said. “So we have to find a way to balance those. It’s rough.”

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