Impact of Human Recreation on Caribou Populations
April 29th, 2019
By Bret Dial
Over the past two decades caribou numbers have declined an estimated 56%, more than halving the 4.7 million individuals since the 1990s. Although many variables account for this reduction, human recreation plays a substantial role in decreasing caribou survival.
Studies have found associations between the spatial scale of the activity and harmful effects on caribou. That is, activities covering larger areas pose a higher potential threat to survival. Increased vigilance and avoidance behaviors (fleeing) have been observed when animals are approached by people. These behaviors, especially during the winter, are detrimental to caribou energy budgets. Strong reaction to human presence was recorded in Denali National Park, Alaska, where caribou disturbance increased as passengers on buses driving through the park became noisier. Circumvention in heavily hunted areas has also been recorded.
However, the largest recreational threat lies in snowmobiling. Preferred snowmobile terrain tends to overlap with prime wintering caribou habitat. Displacement from this habitat in the presence of snowmobilers results in decreased forage availability and subsequently body condition. Packed snow from constant snowmobile travel also creates corridors for predators to access the subalpine terrain previously restricted by deep snow.
To mitigate human-caribou interaction and improve caribou survival, management policies can be effectively implemented. Public education of caribou and their habitat fosters awareness and action to prevent disturbances. Other recommendations include restrictions on snowmobile use in high sensitivity areas such as important wintering habitat and encouraging use of trails with scarce caribou activity. Any steps towards increased conservation may see a productive response in caribou populations.
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