This New Glacier Bay National Park Wildlife Study May Give Major Insights Into Parks With ‘Low Visitation’

by Taylor Cunningham
(Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

More people have been flooding Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve to watch its abundance of wildlife in recent years. And it’s causing an ironic consequence.

According to a study by the University of Washington and the National Park Service, the jolt in attendance is actually scaring away the animals. Most people are spending time on the shorelines as they go to and from tour boats. And unfortunately, that’s where the majority of the wildlife forage and nest. Thanks to the crowds, most of the creatures are moving further into the park. And when people head to the backcountry areas, the animals intentionally avoid them.

To complete the study, researchers set up 40 motion-triggered remote cameras. Using 183,012 photos, including 154,444 of humans, 5,060 of brown bears, 3,452 of black bears, 6,927 of moose, and 570 of wolves, they concluded that nearly all wildlife shifted their patterns to steer clear of humans.

“It was eye-opening to see the number of wildlife sightings we are ‘missing’ just by recreating in backcountry areas of Glacier Bay,” shared lead author Mira Sytsma, who completed this work as a UW graduate student. “I was surprised that for all four species, wildlife detections were always highest when there wasn’t any human activity. So many people visit national parks for the chance to view wildlife. And that desire alone may reduce the chance of it happening.”

The Animals in Glacier Bay National Park May Become Used to Humans

In the past, Glacier Bay National Park saw very little foot traffic. And in comparison to other National Parks, it still does. As wildlife gets used to seeing humans, it may not feel as threatened by their presence. But it will take years to see if the theory is true.

“It’s certainly possible that wildlife could respond less strongly to people over time as they get used to having them around. I think Glacier Bay provides a glimpse of pre-habituation interactions. And perhaps even the habituation process, “Laura Prugh, a University of Washington researcher, wrote in an email to the Traveler.

With the National Parks becoming increasingly popular, and with visitors often opting to explore the least crowded locations, these findings will likely become more widespread. So in the future, the publishers hope that their research will help NPS determine humans’ overall impact on wildlife.

“I expect that similar results [wildlife fleeing human presence] could be found in other national parks, particularly those with relatively low visitation,” Sytsma added. “I wouldn’t be surprised if more and more people seek out less popular national parks to explore, which will have interesting and important implications for park management and wildlife.”