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SOURCE: Jackson Hole News & Guide

DATE: September 23, 2019

SNIP: On the tail end of an intensive effort to research how recreating people affect wildlife, Bruce Thompson threw himself into a funk.

“I was blown away,” Thompson said, “and I had to do some soul searching.”

Digging into around 25 peer-reviewed studies, one conclusion that Thompson found is that no one type of recreation is blameless. “All human activity, no matter what it is, impacts wildlife,” he said. “That’s the nature of the beast.” Trying to create a hierarchy of the worst recreation types is a fool’s errand, he said, but there were some common findings. Traveling off trail, for one, expands a person’s “area of influence” that causes wildlife to flee by two to three times compared to moving along a trail that animals are used to seeing people on. And when those animals are influenced, they get more freaked out. “It’s partly because they’re more surprised,” Thompson said. “The degree of fear that they experience compels them to move at a faster pace, burn more energy and not stop for a longer period of time. It’s terror, rather than modest fright.”

Traveling with a dog was another factor that moves the needle toward increased impact on wild environments, Thompson said. On-trail hiking without a canine companion causes responses from wildlife within around 150 feet, but the reach of disturbance about doubles when there’s a dog accompanying on a leash. Free roaming dogs increase the influence more yet.

Writing for High Country News, journalist Christine Peterson recently documented the sorry state of the resident elk herd nearest Vail, Colorado, where numbers have plummeted from over 1,000 to a low this past winter of 53 animals. She interviewed a retired Colorado State University wildlife professor whose research on the herd suggests recreation’s impacts on calving success was a driving factor in the decline. “About 30% of the elk calves died when their mothers were disturbed an average of seven times during calving,” Peterson wrote for High Country News. “Models showed that if each cow elk was bothered 10 times during calving, all their calves would die.”

Before taking a job as a Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist, Aly Courtemanch studied effects of backcountry skiing on the Teton’s native sheep for her University of Wyoming graduate research. The herd, whose historic migrations were severed by development and highways, now lives out winters on windswept Tetons ridgelines. And when those ridgelines double as popular backcountry skiing lines, the sheep abandon them completely. “In a nutshell, what we found is that the Teton bighorn sheep are extremely sensitive to human activity during the wintertime,” Courtemanch told a working group panel of bighorn experts last winter. “Due to this backountry skiing activity, the habitat is still there — but it’s in effect unusable for the bighorn sheep because they don’t want to go there because there’s so many people.”

Thompson doesn’t preach that people should cut out their favorite outdoor activities and places for recreation, but he is an advocate of people learning and being real with themselves. “Unawareness, ignorance, indifference, carelessness and just obstinacy — the don’t-tell-me-what-to-do attitude — are root causes of our impacts to wildlife,” he said. “I think that soul searching needs to start with what each of us does, learning about that impact, and acting accordingly.”