The growing popularity of outdoor recreation raises many questions about how humans may affect species of wildlife unaccustomed to the many visitors to their shrinking native habitats.
Most answers remain unclear, due to a lack of studies and sometimes diverse results from efforts to quantify effects. A report released last fall by the Winthrop-based nonprofit Home Range Wildlife Research, in partnership with the Seattle-based nonprofit Conservation Northwest, aims to synthesize available science while educating Washingtonians about how it applies to the state’s landscapes and some of its most iconic animals.
“We’ve had conversations with many stakeholders, with conservation groups, with tribes, just to talk about the impacts of recreation on public lands,” said Conservation Northwest spokesperson Kurt Heilman. “This is an old topic of conversation that is becoming more important.”
It also deserves to be included in the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s 10-year recreation strategy, released in 2022. The department’s future plans feature multiple steps to limit and reduce humans, said lead author of the strategy and WDFW’s director of land and recreation planning, Joel Sisolak. Impacts on wildlife and their habitats.
Animal conservation restrictions can indeed be seen occasionally in Yakima County, such as restrictions on access to large parts of the wildlife area before May 1 to protect wintering elk and occasional closures when trail users may disturb an eagle’s nest. Other Central Washington species identified in the Recreation and Wildlife Report include bighorn sheep, cougars, mule deer and wise grouse, which live primarily on the grounds of the Yakima Training Center.
The government’s latest budget will fund Jay Inelsey’s impact monitoring system to be developed by all three of the state’s land managers — WDFW, Department of Natural Resources and State Parks — that Sisolak said will look at recreation impacts on habitats and then identify sensitive areas for deeper analysis. The Department of Wildlife also wants to create more dedicated trails to focus use, as sporadic and unpredictable activities seem to cause more negative impacts on wildlife.
“Part of the reason a lot of user generated stuff was created is because WDFW wasn’t defining paths,” Sisolak said. “So we will now work more proactively with the public to determine the appropriate placement for the tracks.”
Before any new trail construction is undertaken, said Ross Hoffman, regional wildlife program director, local staff want to focus on creating an inventory of unofficial and user-created trails in the area. Although difficult to manage, Huffman and Sisolak recognized the popularity of sporadic recreation and said that this option would always be available on WDFW territory.
Research shows that disorders in animals can cause short-term behavioral changes in animals such as bears and grouse, which in some cases may abandon their home and offspring. Animals in general are most sensitive during winter or breeding cycles, and some studies suggest that non-mechanical activities appear to be more likely to cause negative effects.
However, most of the data wasn’t collected in Washington, so Heilman said Conservation Northwest recommends further investigation of the state and possibly even specific groups of animals, including herds of bighorn sheep or elk. Evidence from different research sometimes leads to different conclusions, such as conflicting studies on whether vultures get used to human presence.
“Some of this is, there really isn’t a one size fits all solution here,” Hillman said. “I think species interact differently and in complex ways depending on many different variables.”
Education is a critical component Hellmann and Sisolak intend for an inclusive and transparent strategic approach that includes important user groups and stakeholders, especially local tribes. Hoffman said his staff is constantly coordinating and meeting with the Yakama Nation to set priorities and find common ground.
Of course, recreation is just one of the many challenges facing wildlife, along with climate change, wildfires, and habitat loss. People generally show interest and respond well to more information that helps them learn how to sustainably enjoy Washington’s wild lands without harming what makes them so popular in the first place, Sisolak said.