It’s time for deeper reverence for Washington’s beloved landscapes and for the critters that call them home
Conservation Northwest / Sep 02, 2022 / Recreation
A new report documents the need to address wildlife-recreation coexistence issues head on. Read the full report here!
By Kurt Hellmann, Advocacy Associate
I love recreating on public lands. And many Washingtonians are the same. We hold deep appreciation for the diverse landscapes and its plethora of wildlife. Whether it be at an alpine lake, old growth forest, expansive grasslands or a mountain pass, we find a sense of wonder or joy and recognize that these lands are home to abundant life.
As participation in outdoor recreation continues to grow, I’ve wondered how ecosystems are impacted by the rising number of people spending time in nature. And specifically, how my presence, along with others, affects the wildlife that call these places home.
Am I just a nuisance to the deer I accidentally spooked on my last hike? Or is my recreation having a larger impact? And thinking a bit larger; what are the cumulative recreation impacts to wildlife? And larger still; what is the appropriate balance in minimizing harm to wildlife and wildlands while also encouraging folks to get outside and enjoy all the benefits recreation offers?
Based in the Methow Valley, Home Range Wildlife Research helped Conservation Northwest start to uncover answers to these questions. Compiled by Home Range scientists, this report dives into the science for fifteen species found in Washington and synthesizes existing literature about the various impacts that recreation activities can have on wildlife. Read the full report here!
While this report contains nuanced findings for each species, the main takeaway is clear: Recreation can have negative impacts on wildlife. These impacts range from temporarily displacing species to posing serious challenges to a population’s viability. Specific impacts vary across different habitats and species, and variables like recreation intensity and time of year further muddy the water for how exactly recreation is affecting wildlife.
Yet we know that coupled with a changing climate and continued habitat loss, these impacts from recreation, no matter how small, can prove detrimental to species. While there is certainly much more to understand and investigate within this complex topic of recreation impacts, this report posits that with the right data, knowledge and management action, recreation and wildlife can coexist. Below are critical next steps that the report outlines for sustainable recreation management:
- Identify recreation and wildlife overlap—We need to know where heavy recreation use intersects important wildlife habitat. These areas are where public land managers should seek to improve wildlife and recreation coexistence by mitigating known negative impacts to wildlife.
- Measure recreation use on public lands—There’s a dire need to collect accurate information for how many people are using recreation areas and when. This data will lead to a better understanding of the short and long-term effects of various recreation activities on wildlife.
- Protect critical wildlife spaces—Quality habitat that is free of major disturbance (known as refugia) is vital for certain species’ survival, especially for sensitive species such as caribou, sage-grouse, wolverine, and mule deer. Animals are particularly vulnerable while denning, rearing young, or trying to survive the winter months. Identifying and protecting key wildlife corridors is essential, as wildlife need to move across landscapes.
- Implement management action—Even with limited data, land managers need to respond to the impacts that recreation has on wildlife. Adaptive management approaches based on the latest science can provide a good starting point and be responsive to more research as it becomes available.
Things to keep in mind for your next trip
I’m happy to call myself an enthusiastic recreationist. I enjoy the outdoors just as much as the next Washingtonian. And the findings from this report present you and I both with a challenge to have deeper reverence for our beautiful and wildlife-rich landscape.
At a time where wildlife and ecosystems are backed into a corner from a changing climate and continued habitat loss, we need to hike, fish, camp, climb, bike, ski and [insert favorite recreation activity] with an elevated responsibility to practice low-impact recreation behaviors and travel outdoors with mindfulness.
Here are the easy to-do’s you might be familiar with:
Stay on trail. Give wildlife space. Keep your pets leashed or at home. Secure and clean-up food. Dispose of your waste properly. Leave what you find.
But there’s even more we must do. We need to think bigger and reframe recreation in a more holistic way.
Avoid the tunnel-vision that’s easy to slip into while planning your next destination to an alpine lake or mountain summit. Instead of focusing on the endpoint, remember that Washington’s landscapes are much more than our weekend getaways spots and places for us to ‘play’. They are radically alive ecosystems teeming with diverse critters and wild flora that are a special part of our natural heritage.
On your next outing, challenge yourself to observe a bird or plant species and learn its importance to its ecosystem. You’d be surprised how much a place becomes alive when you take time to learn and understand your surroundings! Ground yourself with why these places and critters matter beyond our enjoyment.
And in the end—it’s some of our favorite places and our wildlife that help support natural cycles that clean our water and our air and provide other vital ecosystem services that keep us bipedal mammals alive and well. Damage we do to these places is ultimately damage to ourselves.
Tribal voices in Washington have been leaders in raising awareness and addressing recreation’s impact on wildlife. Many of our region’s wild areas and public lands are also important for First Foods, hunting, fishing and gathering, and other traditional uses by Indigenous peoples. Widespread year-round recreation can have an outsized adverse impact on these culturally important activities and Tribal treaty rights.
The Tulalip Tribes compiled a literature review that describes how increasing recreation use on public lands impacts wildlife and Tribal treaty rights. This illuminating read depicts how recreation planning must consider and protect Tribal rights that are guaranteed by law.
The Snoqualmie Tribe recently launched the Snoqualmie Ancestral Lands Movement as a way to bring awareness around the need for respect and mindfulness while recreating on ancestral lands. Visit their website and check out their engaging social media to learn about ways to restore, and protect their ancestral lands.