Wildlife-Recreation Coexistence Program

Working to better outdoor recreation and wildlife dynamics through education, outreach, science and policy.

With outdoor recreation and visitation to Washington’s wildlands booming, both in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the continued growth of our region’s population, Conservation Northwest staff and Board Members, in consultation with other scientists, recreation leaders and advisers, have been developing a new conservation effort since early 2020, which we’ve dubbed our Wildlife-Recreation Coexistence Program.

The intent of this new program—which builds on our past work on issues ranging from national park infrastructure and ski area expansions to informing ATV and mountain bike access policies—is two-fold: we will support sustainable outdoor recreation and wildlife awareness through education, outreach and collaboration. And we will seek to reduce impacts on wildlife and habitat, especially threatened species, through policymaking, grassroots advocacy, and scientific review.

We’ve compiled some tips to help keep wildlife and ourselves safe while spending time outdoors, as well as become involved in discussions around e-bike access on public lands. We also partnered with Home Range Wildlife Research to compile a report summarizing published science on interactions between wildlife and recreationists.

In short, the Wildlife-Recreation Coexistence Program (WREC) will help to reduce outdoor recreation impacts on species and habitats through applied science, advocacy and outreach. This program will also strive to advance sustainable outdoor opportunities while also standing up for Indigenous cultural resources, values and Treaty rights, including First Foods.

Conservation Northwest staffer Laurel Baum demonstrates how to deploy bear spray with an inert can. When hiking in bear country, simple precautions like carrying bear spray can resolve conflicts with bears.

Download a PDF copy of our Wildlife-Recreation Coexistence Program description.

News on Wildlife-Recreation Coexistence

Program Context

Washington state has the second largest population in the West (7.6 million people and growing), yet has the smallest overall landmass and least amount of federal public lands among Western states. The greater Puget Sound is one of the fastest growing urban areas in the country, leading to many more outdoor users each year across the state, particularly after 2020.

While we are happy to see more people enjoying the outdoors, we can’t ignore the costs associated with overuse or under-regulation, especially when Leave No Trace ethics are not in practice. One particular cost that has often been overlooked by recreation groups and industry is the impact of human presence/activities to sensitive flora and fauna. The rapid increase in recreation use and development poses significant impacts to wildlife and one of the greatest challenges facing our local land managers.

While more research is needed, especially locally, activities including motorized vehicle use, mountain biking, backcountry skiing and more have been associated with negative impacts on wolverines, elk, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, marbled murrelet, mountain caribou and other species, as well as sensitive watersheds, meadows, grasslands and other habitats.

Camping outdoors requires adherence to Leave No Trace ethics to limit impacts on wildlife. Photo: Isabella Lackner.

In many areas, impacts are not dependent on a particular use, but are the result of significant increases in the overall volume of year-round human activity. No single trail or recreational experience can be held responsible for declines in wildlife populations–but yet collectively, our trail systems and recreation uses are undeniably impactful. 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, as well as the experiences of other public land users invested in wildlife conservation.

By identifying areas and activities in Washington that may disturb sensitive wildlife, WREC works with recreation groups to educate the public on their potential impacts on wild critters, as well as provide guidance on how and where to minimize harmful impacts. We’ll also continue to engage on recreation-related proposals that may negatively affect wildlife and their habitat, such as expanded access for electric-powered bicycles, in addition to advocating for policies that promote sustainable recreation and prevent the overuse of our public lands.

Additional Resources and Links

In this program, all types of recreation are in its purview: frontcountry, backcountry, human powered and mechanized recreational activities. As a result, WREC will work with recreationists of all types, ages and backgrounds across the state. However, terrestrial recreation will be the initial focus given its sharp growth in the region.

Hikers in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, where increased funding will support sustainable recreation access and habitat restoration. Photo: Chase Gunnell

As for particular species and habitat of focus, WREC will work in tandem with other CNW programs to address key habitat areas and species, and also consider impacts to other threatened/endangered/key species in the state.

Program Tactics

The WREC program’s tactics fall into two distinct groups:

  1. Education and outreach to engage and inform the recreation populace on sustainable and safe recreation. 
  2. Policy formation related to issues around recreation and wildlife or habitat, including regulation setting.

Public engagement will build awareness around recreation’s impact on wildlife, supporting sustainable recreation and partnering with recreation coalition groups. WREC aims to produce and share streamlined education material for wildlife safety and recreation best practices to limit negative impacts. This will initially have more tactical focus, while policy formation will gradually ramp up over time.

In line with Conservation Northwest’s long history of collaboration and partnership building, WREC works to coordinate outreach and events with other organizations and partner with existing coalitions and outdoor recreation learning spaces by bringing education materials and curriculum to implement into practice.

To aid its objectives, WREC will work to summarize published science on interactions between wildlife and recreationists. This review will help inform outdoor recreation focused projects/proposals such as ski area expansions or road and motorized use development. Innovative scientific analysis will also identify key geographic areas and species impacted by outdoor recreation and help determine the threshold where recreation becomes unsustainable.

Backcountry skiing is rapidly growing form of recreation. Findings ways to limit its impact on sensitive wildlife and habitat is vital as the sport continues to grow. Photo: Marc Chalfant.

WREC works with partner agencies, organizations, Tribes and businesses to analyze the impacts of increased recreation on Pacific Northwest wildlife and plant species. These resources will support the development of appropriate policy for public lands use, both internal and external.

To pursue its policy goals, WREC will advocate through grasstops (direct) and grassroots, with coalition involvement similar to other CNW programs. WREC aims to find policy outcomes to prioritize areas where we’re willing to support and encourage increased recreation and areas where we draw a stronger line due to wildlife impact or Tribal values, as well as alternative recreation (less impactful recreational activities or closer to home).

Please contact PROGRAM STAFF for more information, including information on longer-term goals, outreach, funding and partnerships.
The glacier-carved valleys and highcountry of the North Cascades provide provide abundant recreation opportunities, as well as quality habitat for bears, wolverine, ungulates and many other species, in and around North Cascades National Park and surrounding wild areas. Yet even our most remote backcountry places, including this Wilderness valley, are increasingly popular and at times, crowded. Photo: Chase Gunnell