Animals in National Parks Change Behaviors Around Even Small Numbers of People, Study Finds

by Shelby Scott
(Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

One of the greatest things about our national parks is that they give us extraordinary views of our country’s most unique animals. However, a new study has found that even the smallest numbers of people cause our national parks’ wild animal populations to change their behavior. Let’s take a look at how.

Laura Pugh, senior author of the study—which was published in People and Nature—summarized its findings. She stated, “There’s been increasing recognition of how much just the presence of humans in these places, and our recreating there, can impact wildlife.”

Certainly in major parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, it makes sense that animals, including elk, bison, and bears, would change their usual habits. Typically, these locations can see as many as one million visitors each year. However, according to The Hill, the study found that even our nation’s most rarely visited parks are experiencing changes in animal behavior.

Per the outlet, the study’s researchers focused their attention on Glacier Bay National Park. The park is a remote destination that is accessible only by boat or plane. Important to note is that while visitors do arrive via cruise ship, the large vessels don’t dock on the shore. Researchers focused their attention here because, with just 40,000 visitors a year, the decreased numbers of people in the park still helped prove how even minimal human presence can affect wildlife behavior.

How Researchers Executed the Study in the National Park:

The basis of the study at Glacier Bay National Park was relatively simple. Researchers compared the behavior of animals in locations most commonly frequented by humans to locations rarely accessed by park visitors. Altogether, the study evaluated 10 sites. Researchers installed 40 motion-activated cameras parkwide that observed both human and animal activity for two years.

At the conclusion of the observation period, researchers noted four different animal species on the cameras. These include wolves, black bears, brown bears, and moose. The images helped study participants determine two key occurrences.

  1. If humans frequented a specified location, animal activity in that location dropped dramatically. Overall, the study found that the 40 cameras would observe less than five animals a week after humans had been present in the area.
  2. If 40+ visitors frequented a certain area in a single week, wildlife activity dropped to zero.

However, that’s just the beginning. The national park’s study also determined which of the four observed species were most and least affected by humans’ presence.

Most deterred by humans were the park’s wolves, while brown bears (large, predatory animals) were the least affected. Even more fascinating, however, was the change in behavior exhibited by local moose populations. The two-year study found that when human activity increased in a certain area, so too did moose activity. As the largest member of the deer family, it’s interesting moose aren’t typically fearful of humans. That said, the study’s researchers suggested that moose activity increased because they were possibly using humans as “shields” from predators.

Of the study’s findings, lead author Myra Systma said, “It was eye-opening to see the number of wildlife sightings we are ‘missing’ just by recreating in backcountry areas of Glacier Bay. So many people visit national parks for the chance to view wildlife, and that desire alone may reduce the chance of it happening.”