Editor’s Note. This article from The New York Times is interesting … and uncomfortable. Outdoor recreation may be having more impact on wildlife than we want to admit.

Leave Only Footprints? Think Again.

(Is Outdoor Recreation Threatening Wildlife?)

by Christopher Solomon

ONE of the most popular places for backcountry skiing in North America is Teton Pass in Wyoming, high above the adventure playground of Jackson Hole.

This winter, as skiers and snowboarders unload gear for a day of sweat and powder-skiing, the researcher Kimberly Heinemeyer has been moving among them with a clipboard. Dr. Heinemeyer, a senior scientist with the research group Round River Conservation Studies, explains that she’s studying the effect of recreation on wolverines. She asks skiers if they will wear a small orange GPS armband for the day that tracks their movement. Most people gladly agree.

Wolverines, famously tough and elusive animals also known as “mountain devils,” are in trouble in the region. Roughly 300 are thought to remain in the northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest. Climate change is eroding the late-spring snowpack that the animals depend on to survive. Even so, in August, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew its proposal to list the animal as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. Environmental groups are suing.

Over the last five winters, scientists have been trapping and fitting GPS collars to wolverines in Idaho and now in Wyoming while also affixing them to snowmobilers and those backcountry skiers. Then they’ve tracked the movements. Preliminary findings show that wolverines move faster and more often on weekends when people are playing in their mountain habitat. That may mean trouble for these animals during the brutal winters of the high Rockies, where every calorie counts.

When we think of injuring nature, it is easy to point an accusing finger at mining companies and their strip mines or timber barons and their clear-cuts. But could something as mellow as backcountry skiing or a Thoreauvian walk in the woods cause harm, too?

More and more studies over the last 15 years have found that when we visit the great outdoors, we have much more of an effect than we realize. Even seemingly low-impact activities like hiking, cross-country skiing and bird-watching often affect wildlife, from bighorn sheep to wolves, birds, amphibians and tiny invertebrates, and in subtle ways.

Impacts from outdoor recreation and tourism are the fourth-leading reason that species are listed by the federal government as threatened or endangered, behind threats from nonnative species, urban growth and agriculture.

This article was originally posted  02/16/2015.

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