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Washington State University

Effects of Human Disturbance on Wildlife

Posted by rdsayler | October 3, 2023
Person riding an ATV all terrain vehicle
[Photo: Person riding an ATV (all terrain vehicle), also often called a 4-wheeler. Source: Wikipedia. Credit: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos; License: GFDL 1.2]


Try as we might, humans have a difficult time using, observing, and appreciating Nature without affecting it in some way. A recent study from the Mammal Spatial Ecology and Conservation Lab highlights research on human-wildlife interactions conducted by former WSU graduate student, Kelsey M. Gump, and School of the Environment scientist, Dr. Daniel H. Thornton. 

Using automated camera surveys of wildlife in the Colville National Forest (CNF) of northeastern Washington, the SoE wildlife ecologists collected about 11,000 “trap nights” of data using cameras placed in sampling locations in the forest at varying distances from roads and hiking trails.

Investigators then statistically modeled the automated photographic detections of different mammal species to determine the relative influence on wildlife habitat use of motorized traffic (primarily vehicles on roads) versus non-motorized traffic (primarily hikers on trails).

Wildlife reactions to disturbances by vehicle traffic versus human hikers was variable for different species, although some broad patterns emerged from the work. In general, most species tended to shift their habitat use at sites with recreational hikers to more nocturnal hours or delayed their return to these sites after disturbance.

Many mammal species responded more often to non-motorized recreation (hikers) than vehicles on roads, but responses to recreation varied among species, sometimes in a complex fashion depending on the type of disturbance. 

Given the increasing pressures of humans on forests, parks, and even wilderness landscapes, land managers need to be better aware of how different forms of human recreation may influence wildlife. Consequently, Gump and Thornton recommend that future work needs to develop a more nuanced understanding of how species respond to different types of recreation (e.g., biking, horse-riding, camping, people with dogs, off-road vehicles, etc.) and especially how timing and distance from disturbances influences the reactions of different species of wildlife.

They suggest that one of the more important questions to be addressed in the future is how behavioral responses to human recreation ultimately affects the fitness of different wildlife species, which essentially means their survival, reproduction, and population dynamics. 

For more information, see: 

Ecological Applications Trucks versus treks: The relative influence of motorized versus non motorized recreation on a mammal community