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

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

The science is clear—or at least as clear as science ever gets—outdoor recreation affects wildlife, and mostly not in positive ways.

Numerous recreational ecological studies have shown that animals change their behavior in response to human presence. Recently, a University of Washington study made a good point about it: in some of the most remote areas of Alaska, any human presence at all caused huge declines in the presence of wildlife.

But this is Alaska and this is Washington, and it’s always good to know what’s going on in the country. What exactly was the point of a Northwest Conservation report that reviewed the known science. That report was published earlier this month and looked at how outdoor recreation affects 15 specific Washington species.

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

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

The report was released by Home Range Wildlife Research, an organization based in the Methow Valley.

The report offers no silver bullets, noting that many of the species are already endangered and that while recreation is not the cause of these declines, “even a small amount of range overlaps with recreation in important habitats and during sensitive periods can be harmful to animals particularly 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 alku.

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

But the impacts and causes of those impacts vary widely, as evidenced by a review of the report on recreation impacts on mule deer. Unlike elk, mule deer appeared to be less disturbed by motorized recreation and more disturbed by non-motorized recreation with walking, biking, and riding, provoking “higher rates of movement than ORV riding.”

Like deer, off-trail and thus less predictable recreation bothered mule deer more.

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

“Finally, the spatial arrangement and number of trails must 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 may decrease the short-term responses of mule deer to recreation (as these deer may be more habituated to humans).” the report says.

This represents a titanic shift in recreation management.

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

This may be exactly the wrong thing to do when it comes to animal welfare.

“This is an important thing and a big paradigm shift that you’re probably going to see from the perspective of the manger of the earth,” Hellmann said.

“A lot of the science says that maybe reducing the geographic footprint of recreation is beneficial.”

To read the full report, visit

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