A black bear padding through the forest freezes. It looks up briefly, then something spurs it to turn and bolt in the other direction.
That something is the sound of hikers — a recording of women’s voices in conversation as they walk along a trail. It is emitted by one of many motion-triggered speakers scientists set up in the Bridger-Teton National Forest as part of a study on the impacts of outdoor recreation sounds on wildlife. And as this grainy game camera footage shows, even sounds that appear benign to us humans can disturb animals.
As Wyoming outdoor recreation grows in popularity, so do its impacts — ranging from rogue trails to littered landscapes and critter conflicts.
Such anecdotes are nothing new. But now a growing body of research is supporting their validity. It underscores the challenges of managing landscapes for the benefits to users and communities while preserving the resource — and comes as the state is trying to define its approach to the burgeoning outdoor recreation economy and determine its criteria for granting outdoor recreation funds.
“It’s our responsibility and really our need to preserve these areas so that outdoor recreation can continue to flourish,” said Kyle Elmquist with the Wyoming Outdoor Council. If recreation’s effects start to negatively impact wildlife and biodiversity, he said, “then we’re kind of losing the outdoor in outdoor recreation.”
Wildlife disturbances, human headaches
U.S. Forest Service Research Ecologist Mark Ditmer is one of the scientists attempting to quantify how the sounds of outdoor recreation affect wildlife in the Bridger-Teton. He has been working with forest officials as they embark on a forest plan revision, he said, and one of the agency’s goals is to better understand increased visitation and concentrated use. The sound study spawned from those goals.
The project entails taking recordings of recreation — such as mountain bikes zipping by, off-road vehicles motoring along, a trail runner jogging or hikers walking — pairing them with motion-sensing technology and placing them near game trails through the forest. There is also a “control” recording of nature sounds.
As an animal walks by, it triggers the sound and then cameras capture the creature’s reaction. The project also records bird vocalizations for analysis of how recreation noises affect avian behavior. Ditmer and research biologist Kathy Zeller with the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute initiated the study last summer with eight sites; it is ongoing.
It sets out to answer several questions, Zeller said, primarily: “Do mammals have increased stress or vigilance or other types of potentially negative behaviors when they hear recreation noise?”
They also want to know if birds avoid noisy areas, if animal communities change group behavior and what types of sounds are most impactful.
Ditmer and Zeller are only partway through data collection and haven’t quantified responses, but Zeller said they’ve seen many spooked animals — and one activity appears to be particularly startling.
“We’ve found that mountain biking with a large group size tended to result in a higher probability of wildlife fleeing a site compared with the other sound treatments,” Zeller said.
It also appears the nature noises prompt little to no response, Ditmer said. “So I think we can say at this point that playing a noise from the speaker is not necessarily the trigger of the response, it is what is contained within the soundbite itself,” he said.
Those observations align with a 2016 study co-conducted by Courtney Larson, a Wyoming conservation scientist with The Nature Conservancy. Larson and her co-authors reviewed scientific literature regarding the impacts of non-motorized, non-consumptive recreation on wildlife. Some 93% of the nearly 300 studies that assessed recreation’s wildlife effects found at least one significant effect, most of which were negative, according to their findings.
Those effects can look like habitat fragmentation, or animals spending more time being vigilant and less time feeding, Larson said during a presentation in Laramie this spring. Awareness seems to be growing and people have good knowledge of times of year or places where wildlife are particularly vulnerable, she added. But questions remain on the varying sensitivity of species as well as how much recreation a landscape can hold.
“And so there’s really a lot of complication here,” Larson said. However, she said, her personal belief is that “we should have some areas that are just for wildlife.”
Recent research has also attempted to capture data on other recreation impacts. The company onX, which creates outdoor mapping apps for hunters and other recreationists, partnered with a recreation-focused research firm to survey 2,200 outdoor enthusiasts in late 2022 to determine what booming popularity means for public lands and experiences.
Deteriorating experiences on public lands are on the rise, their study found. “So some of the biggest changes to our outdoor experiences are those caused by the very people that are enjoying the outdoors,” said Becky Marcelliano, onX stewardship marketing manager. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents cited overcrowding as negatively affecting their time in nature, for example. Outdoor recreation participation hit a record high nationwide in 2022, according to the 2023 participation trends report from Outdoor Industry Association.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway, she said, is a so-called “stewardship gap.” Though industry data shows 77% of outdoor enthusiasts make 12 or more outings a year, only 19% commit to a stewardship activity in that same timeframe, she said.
“Which means that less than one in five are doing the lion’s share of the work to protect and restore our public lands,” Marcelliano said.
Increasing pressure and lawmaking
Outdoor recreation impacts have been a topic of concern as the state moves to embrace the growing sector. Wyoming created a trust fund this spring to generate grants for trail building, camping infrastructure and other such developments, but lawmakers still need to approve governance language before the funds can be disbursed.
The Legislature’s Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee is slated to take up the matter when it convenes Aug. 10. During the creation of the trust fund, several groups, including Wyoming Outdoor Council, testified that impacts to wildlife and other resources should be thoroughly vetted before a project is granted.
The trick, said WOC Public Lands and Wildlife Advocate Meghan Riley, is ensuring people can access recreation, “but make sure that we do it in a way that doesn’t adversely impact wildlife or kind of that sense of solitude that you can still get in Wyoming.”
A lot of outdoor recreation development protocols already have safeguards in place, said Grace Templeton with Wyoming Pathways, including requiring a rigorous federal environmental review process.
It’s also important to acknowledge that all human activities have some kind of impact on the natural environment, Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Office Manager Patrick Harrington said.
“And so I think our office comes with the perspective that the things we do to develop our recreational resources, do have a potential to have negative wildlife impacts and other negative impacts as well,” Harrington said. “We agree that we want to minimize wildlife impacts at every turn.”
The office’s guiding principle in that vein, he said, is to educate, disperse and concentrate — teach users stewardship principles and design the experience in a way to encourage users onto landscapes that can support them and away from sensitive places.
When it comes to the “stewardship gap,” Harrington said, he believes recreation can actually be utilized to create more stewards — particularly considering onX’s finding that Gen Z and millennials are particularly engaged in stewardship actions. “We need to build recreational opportunities that are sustainable, and allow people to engage with a minimal impact and then use that to catalyze these efforts towards conservation.”
The concept of “loved to death” is coming up more and more, said Era Aranow, a legislative advocate with WOC. “As a state, we need to figure out how we’re going to support and fund the management of the places that we create or are created, because the people just want to be out there.”