The fast-growing popularity of outdoor recreation raises many questions about how humans might affect wildlife species unaccustomed to so many visitors in their dwindling natural habitats.
Most answers remain unclear due to a lack of studies and sometimes differing results in efforts to quantify impacts. A report released last fall by the Winthrop-based nonprofit Home Range Wildlife Research in partnership with the Seattle-based nonprofit Conservation Northwest aimed to summarize the available science while also educating Washingtonians on how they are approaching the state’s landscape and some of its most notable animals.
“We’ve had conversations with numerous stakeholders, with conservation groups, with tribes, just to talk about the impact of recovery on public lands,” said Kurt Hellmann, spokesman for Conservation Northwest. “This has been a long-standing topic of conversation and will continue to grow.”
It also earned inclusion in the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s 10-year recovery strategy, which was released in 2022. The strategy’s lead author and WDFW land planning and recreation manager, Joel Sisolak, said the department’s future plans include several steps to identify and reduce human impacts on wildlife and their habitats.
Animal welfare restrictions have occasionally been observed in Yakima County, such as: B. Restricting access to much of the wildlife area before May 1st to protect wintering moose, and occasional closures when trail users could disturb an eagle’s nest. Other central Washington species identified in the Recreation and Wildlife Report include bighorn sheep, cougars, mule deer and the vanishing sage grouse, which reside primarily on the Yakima Training Center land.
A male sage grouse, left, performs his mating dance for a female in April 2021, puffing out his chest, drooping his wings and fanning out his tail. The birds have adapted to using winter wheat fields as their habitat has decreased.
Gov. Jay Inlsee’s recent budget would fund an impact monitoring system to be developed by all three state land managers — WDFW, the Department of Natural Resources and State Parks — that Sisolak said would study the impact of recovery on habitat and then identify sensitive areas for deeper exploration Analysis. The wildlife department also wants to create more designated trails to concentrate use, as unpredictable, dispersed activity appears to be having a negative impact on wildlife.
“Part of the reason a lot of user-made things were made is because WDFW didn’t set routes,” Sisolak said. “So now we’re going to be a little more proactive in working with the public to decide where hiking trails are appropriate.”
Ross Huffman, director of the region’s wildlife program, said field workers want to focus on compiling an inventory of unofficial and user-built trails in the area before building new trails. Although it’s more difficult to manage, both Huffman and Sisolak acknowledge the popularity of distributed recreation and said the option will always be available on WDFW lands.
Research shows that disturbances in animals can lead to short-term behavioral changes in animals like bears and sage grouse, which in some cases can abandon their homes and their offspring. Animals are generally most sensitive during winter or reproductive cycles, and some studies suggest that non-motorized activities are more likely to have negative effects.
Most of the data wasn’t collected in Washington, however, so Hellmann said Conservation Northwest recommends further research in the state and possibly even specific groups of animals, including moose or bighorn sheep herds. Evidence from different researches occasionally leads to different conclusions, such as: B. Conflicting studies on whether eagles adapt to human presence.
“For some of them, there really is no one-size-fits-all solution,” Hellmann said. “I think species respond differently and in complex ways depending on so many different variables.”
Education is a critical component that both Hellmann and Sisolak aim to address with a comprehensive, transparent strategy that engages user groups and key stakeholders, particularly local tribes. Huffman said his staff constantly coordinates and meets with the Yakama Nation to establish priorities and find common ground.
Of course, recovery is just one of many challenges facing wildlife, alongside climate change, wildfires and habitat loss. Sisolak said people generally showed interest and responded well to more information that will help them learn how to sustainably enjoy Washington’s wild lands without damaging what makes them so popular in the first place.