National Parks Study Reveals How Minimal Human Activity Impacts Wildlife Behavior

by Lauren Boisvert
(Photo by Andrew Peacock/Getty Images)

A recent study conducted at Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska reveals how even a little bit of human interaction in our National Parks can alter wildlife behavior. The study was published in People & Nature and conducted by Mira L. T. Sytsma, Beth Gardner, and Laura R. Prugh from the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle. Additionally, Tania Lewis from Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve was part of the study as well. It posits that human encounters with wildlife, however minimal, will still impact how wildlife behaves.

The four researchers conducted their study from 2017 to 2018 in Gustavus, Alaska. They placed 40 motion-capture cameras in 10 locations in the park. The point was to focus on areas of low-level human traffic, and Glacier Bay gets about 40,000 on-land visitors annually. This made it the perfect place to study minimal human interaction. Other studies similar to this one focused on areas of high visitation and traffic, so the resulting data is different.

In some areas, human activity was restricted, while in others it was concentrated, according to the study. The cameras focused on areas frequented by black and brown bears, moose, and wolves. According to the study, “detections did not exceed five per week for any species unless human activity was absent.” But, the report continues, the animals shifted their “special and temporal” responses regarding human activity.

“Moose shifted their activity patterns to better align with when people were most active,” the report states. “Black bears were more likely to be detected in areas of high human activity but used high-use areas less intensely than low-use areas. Wolves used areas of high human impact more intensely, but shifted their activity to be more strongly nocturnal.”

What Does This Study Mean for Wildlife in National Parks?

What do these findings really mean? Essentially, it means that even the smallest amount of human interaction causes wildlife to alter their behavior patterns. The study posits that an animal’s “natural processes” dominate in protected areas like National Parks, but they are still susceptible to human encounters.

“It was eye-opening to see the number of wildlife sightings we are ‘missing’ just by recreating in backcountry areas of Glacier Bay,” research lead Mira Sytsma told The Hill. “So many people visit national parks for the chance to view wildlife, and that desire alone may reduce the chance of it happening.”

The study came to the conclusion that “it is unreasonable to expect protected areas [National Parks] to be completely devoid of human activity. Thus, management of these areas will need to balance the desires of humans to view wildlife with the likely impacts.”

The takeaway from this study is that humanity’s desire to see wild animals is limiting the chances we have to see them. Animals in National Parks are still wild, even if they witness human activity every day. They aren’t trained, and they’re not animatronic. They have survival instincts and learned behaviors and they will avoid human interaction where they can.