Hunting and hiking are not so bad for wildlife populations

In this post Roland Kays discusses his paper ‘Does recreation or hunting affect wildlife communities in protected areas?‘ published today in Journal of Applied Ecology.

Public wild lands have dual mandates to protect animals and provide recreational opportunities for people. These goals could be at odds if recreation, ranging from quiet hiking to legal hunting and trapping, hurts the wildlife community.  Past studies have clearly shown that animals run away from hikers, and that hunting removes animals from the population, but the broader impacts, and potential interactions, of these forces have not been widely evaluated.  For example, if hunting makes animals more afraid of people, could it amplify the disruptive effects of hikers?

Fortunately, this does not seem to be happening.  Our comparison of 32 protected areas across 6 mid-Atlantic states found relatively minor effects of hunting and hiking on wildlife communities.  We worked with citizen science camera trappers to compare wildlife in pairs of sites with contrasting harvest regulations (hunted or not hunted) but close enough to have similar habitat and environmental conditions.  The four most hunted species (white-tailed deer, raccoons, eastern grey and fox squirrels) were photographed less by our camera traps in hunted sites, as expected, but not by large amounts.  In fact, habitat factors were more important than hunting regulations for explaining the patterns of distribution for most species.


The coyote was the only species in our study where recreation played a stronger role than habitat.  This generalist predator is known to thrive in a variety of conditions, but we were surprised to find a strong effect, with more coyotes photographed in hunted areas than nearby unhunted sites.  We don’t know exactly what causes this effect, but suspect that regular disruption of coyote social organization by hunters might attract more young dispersing animals to the area, looking for an opportunity to establish a new territory, as found in other studies.

To evaluate the effect of hikers, we set camera traps on, near and far from hiking trails.  Again, we found a few minor effects, but no pervasive avoidance of trails by animals.  Squirrels and chipmunks tended to be photographed less often on the trail, while predators were often detected running along trails, although, usually at night after hikers have retired to their beds or sleeping bags.  In this case, the lack of avoidance of hiking trails shows how much animals on the East Coast have adjusted to recreational use of natural areas.

Our study shows that, with careful management, the goals of wildlife conservation and outdoor recreation can both be met within protected areas. Outdoor recreation is important to our society in spiritual, physical and economic ways.  Hunters and hikers support countless local businesses, especially in rural areas, making the outdoor industry the third largest component of the economy of the United States ($646 billion annually).  Spending time in parks and preserves is a great form of exercise, and also one of the most important ways our increasingly urbanized society connects with nature.  Maintaining these recreational opportunities will ensure a voting public that values nature and supports conservation.  Protected areas are good for people and good for wildlife – fortunately, the two are not mutually exclusive.

Roland has also created this video, which shows a sneak peak into his new book: Candid Creatures. How Camera Traps Reveal the Mysteries of Nature:

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