What is the cost of human disturbance on wildlife?

Published: December 13, 2019

Black bear at night, wildlife trail cam Photo by Collins93/Shutterstock

Most cottagers have the utmost respect for wildlife, but while we may think of ourselves as quiet observers, our presence on any given landscape could be changing animal behaviour more than we realize.

“Human-mediated disturbances come in many different shapes and sizes,” says Sandra Frey, a researcher who completed her Masters at the University of Victoria by studying the impact of human behaviour on animal communities. A disturbance can be as simple as us having a presence on a landscape, says Frey. It can also include physical changes such as urbanization, adding roads, or introducing pets or livestock to an area.

She now works alongside InnoTech Alberta examining human-wildlife interactions. “We use wildlife cameras so we can see how our presence changes the distribution of animals, and also if there is biodiversity on these impacted places,” says Frey. The cameras are motion-triggered and each image is time-stamped so Frey can see what time of day and night the animals are active.

Frey tracked animal activity times on the impacted vs. non-impacted landscapes to assess human impact. Certain activity shifts were expected: “Animals such as wolves, a top predator in the system, became more active at night in relation to the degree of disturbance to perhaps to avoid having encounters with people,” she says. But there were also surprising results: “Coyotes on the undisturbed landscapes were active at dawn and at dusk. On the disturbed landscape, we saw them become indiscriminately active at all hours of the day.” Species such as martens also changed their behaviour on the disturbed landscape to become more active during the day than at night. “If we change how animals are able to hunt, travel, and find mates and food, then we’re interfering with how they have evolved to be able to make a living.”

Frey’s recent research focussed on two landscapes in the Rocky Mountains in Alberta: a section of Willmore Wildnerness Park north of Jasper and the Kananaskis region south of Calgary. The two mountain areas have similar natural features and wildlife communities, but they differ greatly in their degree of human impact.

“In Willmore, you have hardly any human presence” says Frey. “This contrasts to the Kananaskis region, which has both extensive motorized and non-motorized recreation, and also considerable resource extraction in the form of forestry, agriculture, and oil and gas.”

Regardless of how careful we try to be, co-existing with wildlife often takes more of a toll on them than it does on us. “If we change the behaviour of one animal, it’s going to change the way it’s interacting with its competitors, its predators, and its prey. And that can have cascading effects throughout the food web,” says Frey.

The goal of Frey’s research is to create an early warning system for animal communities that may be at risk for large-scale problems.”Until recently, human impacts were generally measured by looking at more dramatic consequences such as animal population decline or species loss,” says Frey. “This is a problem because it only reveals issues after they’ve already become severe.”

So what’s a cottager to do? Awareness is a key first step. “Give animals time and space,” says Frey. Regulating pets is also something to consider. Their interactions with wildlife may seem harmless, but “keeping your dog on a leash can help limit the negative effects that our presence extends.” She also recommends reducing driving speeds at night when carnivores may be out hunting, and avoiding road kill where possible.

Our effect on a landscape isn’t always obvious. “Even if we don’t see a behavioural shift, that doesn’t mean there aren’t adverse affects.” says Frey. “Looking at these more subtle responses can be an early warning for us to manage for these losses before they manifest.” Pushing animals out of their habitat completely wouldn’t make us very good guests—it’s their home after all, we’re just visiting.

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