FORT COLLINS, CO – December 8, 2016 – Newly published research in the journal PLOS ONE by scientists at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society ), Colorado State University (CSU), and University of California-Berkeley finds that human recreation activities in protected areas are impacting wildlife, and more often than not, in negative ways.

Nature-based, outdoor recreation is the most widespread human land use in protected areas and is permitted in more than 94 percent of parks and reserves globally. Inspiring an estimated eight billion visits per year to these areas, outdoor recreation is typically assumed to be compatible with conservation. Increasingly, however, negative effects of recreation on wildlife are being reported.

“People generally assume that recreation activities are compatible with conservation goals for protected areas,” said Courtney Larson, CSU PhD student and lead author of the study. “However, our review of the evidence across wildlife species and habitat types worldwide suggests otherwise.”

The authors reviewed 274 scientific articles published between 1981 and 2015 on the effects of recreation on a variety of animal species across all geographic areas and recreational activities.

More than 93 percent of the articles reviewed indicated at least one impact of recreation on animals, the majority of which (59 percent) were negative. Hiking, for example, a common form of outdoor recreation in protected areas, can create a negative impact by causing animals to flee, taking time away from feeding and expending valuable energy.

Surprisingly, studies of hiking and other non-motorized activities observed negative effects on wildlife 1.2 times more than motorized activities. Larson explained: “The findings do not mean that everyone should hop on an ATV instead of hike. Since motorized activities generally cover a larger area, their influence on animals, while less intense, is more widespread. In addition, motorized activities can result in other environmental impacts such as soil loss and vegetation disturbance, which were not analyzed in the study.”

Among the negative impacts observed were decreased species diversity; decreased survival, reproduction, or abundance; and behavioral or physiological disturbance (such as decreased foraging or increased stress). Negative effects were documented most frequently for reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates.

Positive effects of recreation on wildlife were most often observed on birds in the crow family and mammals in the rodent order. These effects included increased abundance and reduced flight responses.

WCS Associate Conservation Scientist Sarah Reed said, “The harmful effects of recreation are a growing concern for land managers who must balance goals for recreation and conservation, as protected area visitation rates increase. Results of this study are critical to inform science-based solutions to avoid or mitigate those impacts.”

The study also suggests that snow sports may impact wildlife more frequently than other activities popular in the summer, such as hiking and boating. Determining exact reasons for this result were beyond the scope of the study, though the authors said this may be an important area to explore for future research.

In other results, the team found that the majority of the research on recreation impacts is conducted in North America and Europe. Most of the articles reviewed focused on impacts to mammals (42 percent) or birds (37 percent) while studies of amphibians, reptiles, and fish, were lacking.

CSU Professor Kevin Crooks said, “Clearly, there is still much to know about the impacts of recreation on wildlife; however, we must start by simply acknowledging that recreation and conservation are not always compatible for all species, in all locations. This will make it easier to justify additional research on this topic, establish limits on public access to protected areas, and encourage changes in the behavior of recreationists, leading to improved conservation outcomes.”

The authors say that the results of the study present an opportunity for a broader discussion on balancing the accommodation of increased numbers of protected area visitors with those of wildlife.

Ways to help minimize recreational impacts to wildlife in protected areas mentioned in the literature include: staying on existing trails, respecting seasonal closures, minimizing noise, not approaching wildlife, and reducing speeds of motorized vehicles.

“Effects of recreation on animals revealed as widespread through a global systematic review,” appears in the current edition of PLOS ONEAuthors include: Courtney L. Larson of Colorado State University; Sarah E. Reed of WCS and Colorado State University; Adina M. Merenlender of University of California, Berkeley; and Kevin R. Crooks of Colorado State University.

To see a copy of the article, please click here. 

This research was funded by a Local Assistance Grant to the Wildlife Conservation Society from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.




WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) MISSION: WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. To achieve our mission, WCS, based at the Bronx Zoo, harnesses the power of its Global Conservation Program in nearly 60 nations and in all the world’s oceans and its five wildlife parks in New York City, visited by 4 million people annually. WCS combines its expertise in the field, zoos, and aquarium to achieve its conservation mission. Visit: Follow: @WCSNewsroom. For more information: 347-840-1242.

Colorado State University/Warner College of Natural Resources Founded in 1870 as the Colorado Agricultural College, Colorado State University is now among the nation's leading research universities. Located in Fort Collins, CSU currently enrolls more than 33,000 students, and has more than 1,800 faculty members working in eight colleges. The Warner College of Natural Resources at CSU offers students the most comprehensive natural resources program in the country and leads education, research, and outreach that make global impacts on critical environmental issues.