How to make sure our outdoor activities don’t harm wildlife

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Spending time outdoors is good for a person’s body and mind, but how good is it for the wildlife around us?

Outdoor recreation has become a popular activity, especially in the midst of a pandemic, where access to indoor activities may be limited. Long known to have negative behavioral and physiological effects on wildlife, outdoor recreation is one of the greatest threats to protected areas. Human disturbance of animal habitats can reduce their survival and reproduction rates and ultimately reduce populations or eradicate them from areas where they would otherwise thrive. Yet park planners and natural resource managers often do not find clear recommendations on how to limit these impacts.

A new scientific article in the open access peer-reviewed journal Preservation of nature Researchers at the Wildlife Conservation Society have looked at nearly 40 years of research on the impacts of recreation on wildlife to try to find the point where recreation begins to impact the wildlife around us. Knowing when and to what extent a species is disturbed can ultimately enable more informed and effective management decisions and increase the chances of its conservation being successful.

The researchers found that the impact or uncomfortable distance from humans, vehicles or trails for shorebirds and songbirds was as short as 100 meters or even less, while for hawks and eagles, it was over 400 meters. For mammals, it varied even more widely, with an impact threshold of 50 meters for medium-sized rodents. Large ungulates – like elk – should instead stay 500 to 1000 meters from humans.

Although human disturbance thresholds can vary widely, large buffer zones around human activities and controlled visitation limits should always be considered when planning and maintaining parks and protected areas. Based on their findings, the authors recommend that human activities be considered to have an impact on wildlife at least 250 meters away. Additionally, they call for future research to explicitly identify points where recreation begins or ends to impact wildlife.

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