During your next walk in the woods, tread lightly.
According to a growing body of research, even low-impact wilderness recreation can harm wildlife. Passive recreation such as hiking can startle or disturb wildlife, forcing it to burn energy reserves or experience stress. The effect can be worse in winter when animals need every scrap of their energy reserves. This news can be very upsetting for the millions of outdoor recreational users who are following a 'do-no-harm' ethic in good faith. Fortunately, a closer look at the details suggests avenues for a compromise between recreation and wildlife protection.
A survey article published recently in the scientific journal PLOS One is a step toward analyzing what we do know. Researchers from Colorado State University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Wildlife Conservation Society evaluated 274 studies on the effects of outdoor recreation on wildlife around the world. 93% of the surveys showed that outdoor recreation affected local wildlife; 59% of those effects were negative, such as population declines. Even more surprising: Recreational activities like hiking often disturbed nearby wildlife even more than motorized recreation.
When wildlife is disturbed, it can cause them to waste energy and fat reserves, abandon nests and young, and move from their preferred haunts into habitat with less food, or more risk from predators. A hiker suddenly coming upon a deer or bighorn sheep will cause it to run further and faster—and expend more energy—than from an encounter with a motorized vehicle, which can be heard from a greater distance and give animals more time to move away.
One notable finding from a paper by Audrey Taylor and Richard Knight in Ecological Applications is that wildlife response to hikers vs. mountain bikers was identical, so the actual presence of humans is what counts, not the type of recreation. An even more sobering finding was that trails create a “corridor of impact” wider than the trail itself: the wildlife reacted to humans 100 meters or more away on either side of a trail, not just on the trail itself. The impact distance of unofficial or side trails was even farther. Counterintuitively, when wildlife could sense humans at greater distances, the reaction was even stronger. Taylor and Knight attribute this finding to the importance of cover—wildlife feel safer when there is somewhere to hide.
On the human side, most outdoor visitors underestimated their impact. Half of those surveyed did not accept that their activities had any impact, and most approached wildlife far more closely than animals can tolerate. Many visitors also react defensively to criticism, instinctively blaming other types of recreation, never their own.
Encouraging a connection with nature is widely considered essential to its preservation, so nobody thinks it’s wise to completely restrict outdoor recreation. Fortunately, numerous studies suggest ways for people to enjoy outdoor activities without having an undue impact. Some areas will need to be completely off-limits to ensure that wildlife can relax, but in most cases simply educating outdoor enthusiasts about the need to keep a safe distance from wildlife will mitigate the problem. Open areas pose a greater challenge, but trails can be routed to take the greatest advantage of natural cover and reduce wildlife stress. Though, it comes down to this: stay on the trail and carry binoculars in addition to what we've already covered regarding the Leave No Trace principles. Oh, and one more thing – don't be loud. Don't play loud music on your cell-phones or even worse – on portable speakers. Instead, keep quiet and enjoy the sounds of nature.
If you are adamant to observe wild animals and that is the main purpose of why you hike, try to do it in the right way: be patient, adaptable, knowledgeable, and respectful. In the words of Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson: „Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.“
Observe wildlife without disturbing it. If an animal changes its behavior because of your presence, it means you are too close. It is also helpful to have an idea about the behavioral patterns of the fauna you are likely to encounter. Animals can act differently depending on the season, location, and species-specific life cycle.
Be patient. The best times for viewing wildlife are generally first thing in the morning and late afternoon/early evening. You enhance your chances by finding a spot, sitting down, and waiting. Be patient. The more you move around, the more conspicuous you are. By staying put, in effect, you become part of the scenery and subsequently represent less of a threat.
Minimize your visual impact by wearing neutrally colored clothing. The same applies to your shelter and pack. The objective is to blend into, rather than stand out from your surroundings.
Never feed animals or leave behind food scraps. It does not take long for animals to become habituated to human food. The repercussions are all negative – mice-infested shelters; popular campsites frequented by possums, bears, and other wildlife and; most importantly, an interruption to the animals' natural dietary habits.
As hiking is becoming ever more popular with outdoor enthusiasts, we can easily say that more and more people will go on the trails. Thus, the hiking scene should be setting new standards and sharing knowledge in the outdoor community on how to minimize the impact on wildlife. Hiking, as a low-impact activity still isn't a no-impact activity, and we have to be aware of that. When in the mountain, or anywhere else where there is untouched nature, behave like you would like someone to behave at your own house or your backyard. As we are nothing more than guests or passers-by in nature… nature which wild animals consider their home.
„Animals should not require our permission to live on earth. Animals were given the right to be here long before we arrived.“- Anthony Douglas Williams (Inside the Divine Pattern)