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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Report: Outdoor recreation impacts Washington wildlife in complex ways, highlighting potential shift in management

A moose ambles along Peone Creek beneath U.S. Highway 2 just northeast of the North Spokane Corridor interchange. The wildlife passage has reduced animal collisions up on the highway.  (DEPT. OF TRANPORTATION)

The science is clear – or at least as clear as science ever is – outdoor recreation impacts wild animals and mostly not in positive ways.

Numerous recreation ecology studies have shown that animals do change their behavior in response to human presence. Recently, a University of Washington study put a fine point on it: In some of the most remote areas of Alaska, any human presence at all caused large drops in the presence of wild animals.

But that’s Alaska and this is Washington, and it’s always good to know what’s happening locally. Which was exactly the goal of a Conservation Northwest report reviewing the known science. That report was published earlier this month and looked at how outdoor recreation impacts 15 Washington specific species.

“This literature report helps illuminate the finer information that is needed to move forward,” said Kurt Hellmann, advocacy associate for Conservation Northwest.

“In a time where we have such significant habitat loss and a changing climate, recreation could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for healthy populations of wildlife.”

The report was co-published by Home Range Wildlife Research, a Methow Valley-based organization.

The report offers no silver bullets, noting that many of the species are already imperiled and that while recreation is not the cause of these declines “even a small amount of range overlap with recreation in important habitats and during sensitive periods could prove detrimental for animals especially sensitive to human disturbance.”

For example, the literature review found that “off-trail and unpredictable forms of recreation have negative population-level impacts on elk” while more predictable forms of recreation, such as hikers on an established trail, are better tolerated by elk.

The review also found that elk were more negatively impacted by motorized recreation than other forms of recreation, leading the authors to conclude that motorized recreation in elk habitat should be “considered carefully.”

But the impacts and causes of these impacts varies greatly, as evidenced by the report’s review of recreation impacts on mule deer. Unlike elk, mule deer seemed to be less bothered by motorized recreation and are more disturbed by nonmotorized recreation with hiking, biking and horseback riding provoking “higher movement rates than did ORV riding.”

Like elk, off trail and thus less predictable recreation, disturbed mule deer more.

There were similar findings across all species types, but a summation of the mule deer findings points to a possible shift in recreation management priorities.

“Finally, spatial arrangement and number of trails should be considered in recreation management plans that overlap with mule deer habitat. For example, Price and Strombum (2014) suggest that building trails near areas with already high concentrations of human activity can decrease mule deer short-term responses to recreation (since these deer may be more habituated to humans),” states the report.

That represents a titanic shift in recreation management.

For decades, the prevailing wisdom has been to spread users out, reducing the human impacts on trails and providing hikers, bikers, bird watchers, hunters and others a better, less-crowded experience.

That may be exactly the wrong thing to do when it comes to animal well-being.

“That’s an important thing and a huge paradigm shift you will probably see from a land manger perspective,” Hellmann said.

“A lot of the science is saying perhaps reducing the geographic footprint of recreation is advantageous.”

To read the full report, visit