Even without a hunting rifle, humans seem to have a strong negative impact on the movement of wild animals. A study of hiking trails in Glacier National Park during and after a COVID-19 closure proves the theory that humans, like other apex predators, create a “landscape of fear” and how species use an area simply by their can change presence.
Researchers from Washington State University and the National Park Service found that 16 out of 22 mammal species, including both predators and prey, switched the place and time at which they entered areas in the presence of human migrants. Some completely deserted places they previously used, others used them less frequently, and some switched to more nocturnal activities to avoid people.
“Once the park was open to the public and many hikers and recreationists were using the area, we saw a number of changes in how animals were using the same area,” said Daniel Thornton, WSU wildlife ecologist and senior author of the Journal published study Scientific Reports. “The surprising thing is that because Glacier is such a tightly protected national park, there isn’t any other real human disturbance out there, so these responses are really driven by human presence and human noise.”
The researchers had also expected to find an effect known as “human shielding” when human presence causes large predators to avoid an area, giving smaller predators and perhaps some prey species the opportunity to use an area more frequently . In this case, they only found this potential effect for one species, the red fox. The foxes were more present on and near trails when the park was open — perhaps because their competitors, coyotes, avoided those areas when people were around.
Several species showed a decline in trail use when the park was open, including black bear, elk, and white-tailed deer. Many reduced their daytime activities, including mule deer, snowshoe hares, grizzly bears and coyotes. Some, including cougars, seemed indifferent to the presence of humans.
While the impact of the low-impact recovery is worrying, the researchers stressed that more research is needed to determine if this has negative implications for the survival of the species.
“This study doesn’t say that migration is necessarily bad for wildlife, but it does have some implications for spatiotemporal ecology or how and when wildlife uses a landscape,” said Alissa Anderson, a recent WSU master’s graduate and first author of the Study. “Maybe they aren’t on the trails that often, but they use different locations, and how much does that actually affect the ability of species to survive and thrive in one location, doesn’t it?” There are many questions about how this actually plays a role in the survival of the population.”
The study came about in part because of the pandemic. Both humans and wildlife like to use trails, so researchers had set up a series of camera traps near several trails to study lynx populations in Glacier National Park when COVID-19 struck. To prevent the virus from spreading to the nearby Blackfeet Indian Reservation, the eastern portion of the park was closed in 2020, allowing administrators and researchers minimal access.
This allowed Anderson, Thornton, and co-author John Waller of Glacier National Park to conduct a natural experiment. They took pictures in the summer of 2020 when the park was closed and in 2021 when it reopened.
Covering almost 1,600 square miles in northwest Montana, the glacier sees more than 3 million human visitors a year. It is also home to a wide variety of animals with almost the entire number of mammalian species that have historically existed in the region.
Thornton said park managers face a balancing act between conservation and public use missions.
“It’s obviously important that people can get out of there, but there could be a level that becomes problematic,” he said. “Some additional research could help better understand this and develop some guidelines and targets.”
Alissa K. Anderson et al, Partial COVID-19 closure of a national park reveals negative impact of low-impact recovery on wildlife spatio-temporal ecology, Scientific Reports (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-27670-9
Provided by Washington State University
Citation: Low-Impact Human Recreation Changes Wildlife Behavior (2023, January 19), retrieved January 19, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-01-low-impact-human-recreation-wildlife-behavior. html
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