Americans’ love of hiking has driven elk to the brink, scientists say: The Guardian

Elk stand in an open field in 2014 between the Eagle River and Interstate 70 just east of the town of Eagle, Colorado, near Vail, Colorado. Photograph: Richard Spitzer/The Guardian
The headline is seriously overstated, but that seems par for the course these days. Here’s the link. The same story is in High Country News.

Biologists used to count over 1,000 head of elk from the air near Vail, Colorado. The majestic brown animals, a symbol of the American west, dotted hundreds of square miles of slopes and valleys.

But when researchers flew the same area in February for an annual elk count, they saw only 53.

“Very few elk, not even many tracks,” their notes read. “Lots of backcountry skiing tracks.”

The surprising culprit isn’t expanding fossil-fuel development, herd mismanagement by state agencies or predators, wildlife managers say. It’s increasing numbers of outdoor recreationists – everything from hikers, mountain bikers and backcountry skiers to Jeep, all-terrain vehicle and motorcycle riders. Researchers are now starting to understand why.

Outdoor recreation has long been popular in Colorado, but trail use near Vail has more than doubled since 2009. Some trails host as many as 170,000 people in a year.

Recreation continues nearly 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, said Bill Andree, who retired as Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Vail district wildlife manager in 2018. Night trail use in some areas has also gone up 30% in the past decade. People are traveling even deeper into woods and higher up peaks in part because of improved technology, and in part to escape crowds.

The elk in unit 45, as it’s called, live between 7,000 and 11,000 feet on the pine, spruce and aspen-covered hillsides and peaks of the Colorado Rockies, about 100 miles from Denver. Their numbers have been dropping precipitously since the early 2010s.

Outdoor recreation has long been popular in Colorado, but trail use near Vail has more than doubled since 2009. Some trails host as many as 170,000 people in a year.

Recreation continues nearly 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, said Bill Andree, who retired as Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Vail district wildlife manager in 2018. Night trail use in some areas has also gone up 30% in the past decade. People are traveling even deeper into woods and higher up peaks in part because of improved technology, and in part to escape crowds.

The elk in unit 45, as it’s called, live between 7,000 and 11,000 feet on the pine, spruce and aspen-covered hillsides and peaks of the Colorado Rockies, about 100 miles from Denver. Their numbers have been dropping precipitously since the early 2010s.

To measure the impact on calves, he deliberately sent eight people hiking into calving areas until radio-collared elk showed signs of disturbance, such as standing up or walking away. The consequences were startling. About 30% of the elk calves died when their mothers were disturbed an average of seven times during calving. Models showed that if each cow elk was bothered 10 times during calving, all their calves would die.

When disturbances stopped, the number of calves bounced back.

Why, exactly, elk calves die after human activity as mellow as hiking is not entirely clear. Some likely perish because the mothers, startled by passing humans and their canine companions, run too far away for the calves to catch up, weakening the young and making them more susceptible to starvation or predation from lions or bears. Other times it may be that stress from passing recreationists results in the mother making less milk.

“If you’ve ever had a pregnant wife, and in the third trimester you chase her around the house in two feet of snow, you’ll get an idea of what she thinks about it,” Andree said.

Andree wrote a letter explaining the dire impact of constant recreation on elk. Even if certain trails were closed during calving season, he said, elk would still be disturbed because some people simply disregarded instructions for them to keep out.

“Generally when you ask people to stay out of the area no matter what the reason is, 80-90% obey you,” Andree said. “But if you get 10% who don’t obey you, you haven’t done any good.”

The recreation community acknowledges its impact on wildlife as well as other development, said Ernest Saeger, the executive director of the mountain trails alliance. Many people don’t understand the significance of the closures. Others, he acknowledged, just don’t care.

So the group formed a trail ambassador program to post more informative signs at closures and even place volunteers at trailheads to explain why trails are closed. The scheme reduced closure violations in 2018, according to Forest Service numbers.

If trail building and closure violations in critical habitat continue, Devin Duval, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s district wildlife manager in the area, anticipates the worst.

“It will be a biological desert,” he said.

Some thoughts: (1) Night trail use, I didn’t know about that, let alone it increasing. Maybe others can shed some light (so to speak) on that.
(2) Since most recreationists take gas powered vehicles to get to trail heads, perhaps there should be a moratorium on driving to outdoor recreation?
(3) How do these increasing numbers of people fit in with the “nature deficit” idea that still holds some sway?
(4) Are there better ways than harassing animals to study this problem?
(5) I’d be interested in how much is due to humans and how much to off-leash dogs (no, I am not suggesting a similar experiment with dogs).

24 thoughts on “Americans’ love of hiking has driven elk to the brink, scientists say: The Guardian”

  1. Seems like the inevitable result of this kind of thinking is the creation of new “super wildernesses” where no humans are allowed to go at all. Stay out of the King’s Forest, lowly peasants! Public lands are not for you!

    • Patrick, I am more sanguine than you. I think it may come to the death of “the public lands problem is everyone below me on the Pyramid of Pristinity” thinking, and the rising of “we need to rethink all of our impacts and how to manage them” without enemizing other users.

      • I agree that would be the best outcome for sure. The fact is that every use of public lands has impacts. So studies like this at least have the benefit dispelling false claims of superiority by certain groups who try to blame environmental impacts on everyone else. I would love to see more unity among all backcountry user groups, and a more fully shared sense of responsibility for taking care of public lands. Currently that burden is disproportionately borne by motorized and mechanized groups, so it would be nice seeing more hikers acknowledge that they too cause impacts and work to mitigate them the way motorized groups have been doing for a long time now.

        I am wary of the policies that might be enacted to deal with such impacts, however. I would hate to see hikers subject to the same regime as motorized users, being limited to an ever-shrinking system of designated trails which are only open a few months each year, and subject to seasonal closures the rest of year in the name protecting this or that animal.

        I just saw an article yesterday talking about how bikes are now limited to designated trails around the Grand Lake area, and see the “closed unless designated open” model descending further down the “pyramid of pristinity” as you called it. If the ability to explore wherever we want by foot on public lands is ever lost, that will be a sad day indeed.

  2. Also, anyone think it’s ironic that they used a photo of a herd of elk hanging out, seemingly perfectly calmly, right next to an interstate, for an article claiming that simply hiking disturbs elk too much?

  3. The Starkey Experimental Forest in Oregon has done a lot of work on different types of disturbance and elk/deer. I don’t think they have looked at dogs, but they have looked at bicycling vs. hiking vs. motorized recreation. The entire experimental forest is fenced and all of the deer, elk and cattle inside can be tracked.

    Naylor, L. M., M. J. Wisdom, et al. (2009). “Behavioral Responses of North American Elk to Recreational Activity.” Journal of Wildlife Management 73(3): 328-338.
    Off-road recreation on public lands in North America has increased dramatically in recent years. Wild ungulates are sensitive to human activities, but the effect of off-road recreation, both motorized and nonmotorized, is poorly understood. We measured responses of elk (Cervus elaphus) to recreational disturbance in northeast Oregon, USA, from April to October, 2003 and 2004. We subjected elk to 4 types of recreational disturbance: all-terrain vehicle (ATV) riding, mountain biking, hiking, and horseback riding. Motion sensors inside radiocollars worn by 13 female elk recorded resting, feeding, and travel activities at 5-minute intervals throughout disturbance and control periods. Elk fed and rested during control periods, with little time spent traveling. Travel time increased in response to all 4 disturbances and was highest in mornings. Elk travel time was highest during ATV exposure, followed by exposure to mountain biking, hiking, and horseback riding. Feeding time decreased during ATV exposure and resting decreased when we subjected elk to mountain biking and hiking disturbance in 2003. Our results demonstrated that activities of elk can be substantially affected by off-road recreation. Mitigating these effects may be appropriate where elk are a management priority. Balancing management of species like elk with off-road recreation will become increasingly important as off-road recreational uses continue to increase on public lands in North America.

    And, from 2018:

    Wisdom, M. J., H. K. Preisler, et al. (2018). “Elk responses to trail-based recreation on public forests.” Forest Ecology and Management 411: 223-233.
    Trail-based recreation is a popular use of public forests in the United States, and four types are common: all-terrain vehicle (ATV) riding, mountain biking, hiking, and horseback riding. Effects on wildlife, however, are controversial and often a topic of land use debates. Accordingly, we studied trail-based recreation effects on elk (Cervus canadensis), a wide-ranging North American ungulate highly sought for hunting and viewing on public forests, but that is sensitive to human activities, particularly to motorized traffic on forest roads. We hypothesized that elk would respond to trail-based recreation similarly to their avoidance of roads open to motorized traffic on public forests. We evaluated elk responses using a manipulative landscape experiment in a 1453-ha enclosure on public forest in northeast Oregon. A given type of recreation was randomly selected and implemented twice daily along 32 km of designated recreation trails over a five-day period, followed by a nine-day control period of no human activity. Paired treatment and control replicates were repeated three times per year for each recreation type during spring-fall, 2003–2004. During treatments, locations of elk and recreationists were simultaneously collected with telemetry units. Elk locations also were collected during control periods. Elk avoided the trails during recreation treatments, shifting distribution farther out of view and to areas farthest from trails. Elk shifted distribution back toward trails during control periods of no human activity. Elk avoided recreationists in real time, with mean minimum separation distances from humans that varied from 558 to 879 m among the four treatments, 2–4 times farther than elk distances from trails during recreation. Separation distances maintained by elk from recreationists also were 3–5 times farther than mean distances at which elk could be viewed from trails. Distances between elk and recreationists were highest during ATV riding, lowest and similar during hiking and horseback riding, and intermediate during mountain biking. Our results support the hypothesis that elk avoid trail-based recreation similarly to their avoidance of roads open to motorized traffic on public forests. Forest managers can use results to help optimize trade-offs between competing objectives for trail-based recreation and wildlife species like elk that are sensitive to human activities on public forests.

    • Thanks A, these are great cites! I also like the experimental designs better. I wonder if ATVs were quieter, would they be less disturbing, and even possibly approach the MB level of disturbance?

    • Some years ago I attended a presentation by the authors of the 2009 Starkey study. They noted that the presence of roads and trails have little or no effect on elk — but of course activities on them do. One of the authors said that elk aren’t stupid — they like walking on roads, because it’s easier than pushing though brush or jumping over downed trees. So, roads may be of some benefit to elk.

  4. Read the original research and you’ll better understand the Guardian’s synopsis.

    The issue is disturbance during calving season only, April and May. The highway photo was taken during the winter when elk descend to lower elevations seeking forage. They are not calving at that time and, thus, their reproductive success does not suffer from the passing autos, unless they get hit (but note the wildlife underpass behind them).

    The Colorado study measures elk fecundity. The Blue Mountains studies measure elk movement. Fecundity has a more direct link to elk population numbers than do elk movements.

    Seasonal closures during breeding season have been a mainstay of wildlife management for as long as I can remember. This is no different.

    • Andy, I just picked that photo because it showed elk in the general neighborhood of the area that the story was talking about.

      I think it is a bit different as the closures are perhaps closer to communities. And people and dogs on trails may be different than closing roads because vehicles may stay on roads, and elk avoid them. People and dogs not so much.

  5. I would expect that night use is most commonly related to backcountry skiing and mountain biking. The new LED lights out there make riding and skiing touring in the dark quite enjoyable. I know we have seen a significant increase in interest in our winter night rides. In my experience we see more wolf tracks than anything else, but then we aren’t riding in winter elk habitat.

    I’m curious why 90% compliance isn’t adequate. If a trail is heavily used that this isn’t adequate there are probably plenty of other confounding variables.

    The other issue is, this is Vail. How much population growth and development has there been on critical elk habitat? Is resort development compatible with large game even with seasonal restrictions? How do we manage increased populations and recreational demands without killing the golden goose? Have other area in Colorado seen similar loss of elk? This isn’t an issue that we can solve solely through more wilderness designations. It seems much like hunting regulations there needs to be a more dynamic approach, and maybe some areas will require a hiking license and you can earn points to hike in premier locations. Still that won’t solve the problem that most of this is secondary the expanding WUI.

    • And suggestions like that are precisely what makes me worried about future policy responses. There are already some trails in Colorado like Hanging Lake that now require a permit and taking a shuttle bus to the trailhead to hike in a limited time slot. That kind of thing kills the experience of hiking. I can understand why it might be necessary in a few heavily trafficked areas. But expanding that more broadly would take away the freedom and spontaneity of hiking in the Rocky Mountains, and would pretty much destroy Colorado’s outdoor culture overnight.

        • perhaps it’s illogical, but I am more for naturally expanding ranges than reintroductions. But I think there are different requirements under ESA that I don’t understand.

          • “perhaps it’s illogical, but I am more for naturally expanding ranges than reintroductions.”

            One of my favourite sites to follow was/is the Circle Ranch website (now called Pitchstone Waters). They were located for decades in West Texas in the Big Bend area near Van Horn Texas. Rancher Chris Gill bought 32,000 aces in the rocky red wasteland of Hudspeth County in 1999. What intrigued me is their love of nature and not only having a working cattle ranch, but he worked to restore and increase all manner of wildlife and plant ecosystem habitat to support that wildlife. Not many environmentalist follow such ranchers and even pay them honorable mention. For Circle Ranch they implemented numerous wells and watering holes and stations throughout the ranch. He continually fought with the Texas State biologists who insisted that Texas has no native Elk and considered them invasive and harming wild sheep populations. Chris Gill proved that was bunk because both sheep and Elk increased and thrived on his ranch.

            Sadly he sold this ranch and purchased another up north. The Pitchstone Waters is a 603-acre ranch located near Ashton, Idaho, in the wild and scenic Fall River-Henry’s Fork outflow of Yellowstone’s Pitchstone Plateau. This privately owned ranch is bordered on two sides by the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. I haven’t followed that as much as when they were at Circle Ranch, but they are apparently of the same wildlife mindset as they were in Texas. Here’s a couple of links below.



  6. I’ve noticed elk stay a couple hundred yards away from roads and trails that people walk on, especially with dogs which are simply tamed wolves in the eyes of an elk. In looking to cut elk tracks the first thing I do is get off the trail, the further the better. Last spring I went to an area I hadn’t been to in 8 years. I never used to see anyone though I knew people used an illegal bike trail. There were bike and human tracks many places, people were trail running through there, you could tell by the length of stride. Lots of secondary trails too. I think handheld GPSs and apps like Caltopo which can be used with the GPS on one’s phone have driven a lot of use also.

    Many people who would hesitate to use a trail without marks and signage now feel confident on simply following the little arrow on the screen.

    I share Patrick McKay’s concern about the potential of future restrictions.

    One method of protecting the resource without completely restricting use, is to ratchet down the allowable uses. Obviously we don’t build hard top roads through roadless areas, and 4 wheelers have already given up a lot of access, as have ATVs. Enforcement has had a lot to do with off roaders following the rules. I know where elk calve in the mountains above my house, and I’ve never seen any restriction on access, maybe it’s time to start, also on access to winter range in the late winter early spring when cows are pregnant and without much in the way of reserves. I’d like to see a reduction in the number of trails too, especially mountain bikes which allow many times the disturbance per user than hiking does, and much further into the back country. Without trails people can still get out and enjoy nature, but in a much smaller area.

    • Another environmentalist self-loathing post ? Humans are evil, humans are a plague on the earth, humans are the cancerous boil on the earth’s sorry back side, people should choose not to have children for the sake of the planet, etc.

      • You said it Kevin. I did not. I simply shared a chart showing the dramatic increase in the population of human beings on earth, which may be part of the problem with the elk. P.S. Twenty-two years ago my wife and I made a decision to not have kids for a variety of reasons.

  7. There is an active Elk Management plan in Missoula, Montana for minimizing the winter impacts on elk on Mount Jumbo just out of town. Might offer some helpful ideas for others?

  8. “You said it Kevin. I did not.”

    No, it was the chart YOU posted that said it. This chart is posted on Facebook by almost every single self-loathing environmental group in attempt to being human as a species for every single major problem on earth. This is usually followed by faith affirmation doomday chants on how glad they’ll be when humans go extinct. Of course they generally excuse themselves from blame.

    • Sorry Kevin, but the chart clearly JUST shows human population growth. You are seeing things that are not there, so you may want to get that checked out.


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