Is Your Mode of Locomotion Impacting Your Hunting Success?
Ever since humans mastered riding on the backs of animals, the efficiency at which hunters operate changed forever. Today, hunters have many modes of transportation that help them penetrate the backcountry. From float planes, amphibious 8-wheeled Argos, 4-wheel drive trucks, off-road vehicles, boats, mountain bikes, horses to the new e-bikes.
Most hunters use efficient means of transportation to get them out to their general hunting area. Once there, some hunters dismount and hunt on foot, but many drive every road or trail that they can get their truck, ATV or ORV up and down. Do you know anyone who hunts by racking up the odometer? Do you often hear them complain that there is no game left because the biologists screwed things up? Why do think that is?
Moreover, are you worried that your or other hunters’ mode of locomotion is impacting your hunting success? Maybe the more important question we need to ask is whether certain types of locomotion are impacting wildlife populations.
In 2000, researchers from Colorado State University studied the impact of human hikers on elk. Researchers simulated hikers disturbing an elk until the elk left its area. They disturbed cow elk about 8 times per day and discovered that this level of disturbance, sustained over time, led to a 40% reduction in the survival of elk calves in their study population. In other words, each disturbance of a cow elk with a calf that was intense enough to cause the elk to flee resulted in 5% mortality among the elk herd. Researchers hypothesized that this mortality was due to increased predation of calves that were separated from their mothers during the panic to flee the human intruders. When the study ended, and the human disturbance was stopped, researchers saw the elk herds recover.
In 2004, the US Forest Service in Oregon conducted a study lead by biologist Mike Wisdom which became a landmark study known as the Wisdom Study. In this study, how different types of recreation impacted elk were quantified. The response of collared elk was measured when they were exposed to hikers, horseback riders, mountain bikers and ATV/ORV riders at a rate of 2 times per day.
The Wisdom Study found that human hikers caused collared elk within 350m of the trail being used to flee. Elk within 550m of the trail would take off when horseback riders went by, 750m when mountain bikers rode by and 1350 m when a motorized ATV/ORV drove by.
The interesting part about these research findings is that the faster the mode of transportation, the larger the zone the elk would vacate. The speed that the new e-bikes can attain is partly why their use in hunting is creating a stir in wildlife management circles across North America.
In mountainous regions like the Rocky Mountains of Alberta and British Columbia, where valleys are narrow and steep, zones of disturbance that are 1.35 km wide on either side of road could end up creating entire valleys void of elk. With logging roads and mining trails crisscrossing many valleys in the Rockies, the potential for displacing elk from good habitat could be a serious impediment to the stability, growth or recovery of elk populations.
The two main concerns with human-caused disturbance of ungulates that trigger this fleeing response in elk is two-fold. First, elk that are frequently disturbed spend more time running away and less time feeding. Less time feeding and more time running means elk burn more energy and they are not getting enough food to build up their fat reserves. Females with low stores of fat can reach a point where they do not reproduce, which can then affect entire populations.
Secondly, wildlife that are continuously being displaced away from roads and trails can get pushed out of quality foraging areas and compressed into small habitats. This phenomenon is sometimes called “habitat compression” which ultimately means that more animals compressed into smaller habitats leads to the situation where the habitat cannot support extra animals. Therefore, the population must decline to equilibrate to the habitat’s carrying capacity.
The Oregon and Colorado studies showed negative responses in elk from relatively low human disturbances, so imagine the impact on elk from ongoing industrial activities like logging or unregulated recreation. Hunters are often the hardest, and sometimes the only backcountry users, hit with restrictions on how they can or cannot propel themselves across the land.
In British Columbia, there are road systems that hunters can only walk on if they want to use the road for hunting, but everyone else can drive ATVs and ORVs up and down them if they aren’t hunting. Likewise, hunters may have to walk into backcountry closure areas while logging trucks and logging crews flood in and out of the area on the same roads. A couple of years ago, after a severe fire season, hunters were restricted from driving on fireguards and fire roads but commercial mushroom pickers and motorized recreators could go wherever they wanted with off-road vehicles. Does that make sense to you?
So, what’s the solution to protect wildlife from human-caused disturbances? Well I’d say that Canada needs way more wilderness areas (free of industrial activity) that hunters and other backcountry users can access with their low speed forms of locomotion. At the same time, the entire landscape needs to be comprised of a mosaic of access management areas that regulate the types, numbers and timing of the higher speed forms of locomotion. There should be opportunity for everyone to choose how they travel, but habitat compression needs to be at the centre of management decisions not just the wants of backcountry recreation users.
Science needs to be the driver that informs biologists how, where and when they need to regulate human disturbance and types of locomotion. Decisions may not be popular with everyone, but the needs of wildlife must come first. Canada needs more studies like the Wisdom Study and Colorado study to quantify local responses of wildlife to human disturbance, and access management decision making needs to be inclusive of all backcountry users. The issue of human-caused disturbance of wildlife transcends hunting, and it is something that every Canadian who cares about wildlife needs to have a say in. It is also a wildlife issue that requires more than just the regulation of hunters.
Finally, if you are still worried whether your mode of locomotion might be affecting your hunting success, take note of what the poet Robert Frost once said,
“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
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