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Recreation Or Wreckreation?

Fish & Wildlife

Friday, March 22, 2002

"Those critters don’t mind us – they don’t even move when they see us!" Wildlife biologists regularly hear this comment from people relating how wildlife are unaffected by their presence, whether they are riding through the country on a motorcycle, ATV, snowmobile, or are on foot or horseback. But the science of wildlife biology takes a closer look at how recreation impacts wildlife and the environment.

Biologists use research and observations to identify and then help to reduce the real, measurable impacts of recreation on wildlife. An exhaustive study, the Effects of Recreation on Rocky Mountain Wildlife—A Review for Montana, brings this research together in one place, thanks to the efforts of 35 volunteer wildlife biologists. The results show how one seemingly minor activity can send predictable and sometimes unpredictable ripples through a wildlife community.

Take the opinion, "Snowmobiling doesn’t affect anything – it's only snow!" The impacts on wintering deer, elk or moose can be obvious if snowmobiling occurs in foothill wintering areas. The threat of a snowmobile route, or other recreation, that breaks trails at higher elevations may not be so obvious. Expanses of deep, soft snow can protect wildlife by keeping the animals secure. Deep, soft snow protects the reclusive wolverine where it dens at high altitudes. Packed snowmobile trails may suddenly make the otherwise isolated, deep snow wintering areas used by bighorn sheep, moose, or elk accessible to predators such as coyotes, lions or wolves. Lynx and coyotes, which both prey on snowshoe hare, may end up competing for food in deep snow areas otherwise inaccessible to coyotes.

Many people have a "gut-feeling" that certain recreational activities in certain places could inadvertently cause problems for wildlife and degrade their habitats. An example covered in the biologists' work is protecting ungulates like deer and elk from being disturbed on their winter ranges. The research outlines the potential negative impacts and offers suggestions for ways that individuals, management agencies and others can work together to reduce the impacts. Suggestions include routing human traffic away from winter ranges; designating and sticking to trails to make the human presence predictable and less stressful for wildlife; monitoring high traffic areas so conflicts can be eased early on; and using signage on trails to inform recreational users of winter range and other sensitive wildlife areas.

One good general rule that can be taken from this study is that no matter how docile an animal may appear, its outward demeanor does not necessarily reflect the animal's stress level. Another is that the cumulative effect of multiple disturbances may have a significant, detrimental effect on individual animals, as well as the entire population.

Stress-induced changes can include reduced resistance to disease, reduced body weight as a result of higher than normal energy expenditures, smaller newborns and other subtle changes that can affect the long-term vitality of a population.

"Effects of Recreation on Rocky Mountain Wildlife—A Review for Montana" is available on the web at www.montanatws.org or in hard copy from the same site. So, in your spare time, when you are not out enjoying the great Montana outdoors, consider curling up with this interesting, fact-filled document to learn how you can help wildlife to go about the business of survival while you enjoy Montana's splendid wild country.

Editors Note: The “ Effects of Recreation on Rocky Mountain Wildlife—A Review for Montana” was recognized by the national Wildlife Management Institute at the 66th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Washington D.C. in April 2000, when they awarded the Montana Chapter of the Wildlife Society their most prestigious recognition, the Touchstone Award.