A new study from North Carolina State University finds most wildlife species are not disturbed by hiking and hunting in protected forests.
As part of a two-year tracking project, more than 350 volunteers monitored camera traps in six states to gauge how hunting and hiking impact animal populations. Conservation biologist Roland Kays said this approach allowed researchers to gather a large amount of high quality data.
"Because we were able to double-check their work by looking at the photographs, we know it was really high quality data," Kays said. "We're not trusting people to just see something and identify it without being able to check and do quality control."
The study compared 1,900 sites in 32 forests with a range of hunting and hiking regulations. Kays found outdoor recreation has little impact on the distribution of wildlife populations compared to other human activities.
Some commonly hunted species such as deer, squirrels and raccoons were detected slightly less in regions where hunting is allowed, but Kays said the impact on animal populations was minimal.
"Things like habitat fragmentation and housing density were more important to describing these differences than any of the hunting or hiking variables," he said.
Similarly, most species did not avoid hiking trails. Kays believes many animals have become habituated to the presence of humans.
The study is encouraging for park managers, said Kays, who are seeking to strike a balance between the need to protect wildlife and the demand for outdoor recreational activities.
"This is a sign that the regulations, the rules, the trail densities, the amount of hunting that is allowed right now, appears to be sustainable," he said. "It appears to be doing a good job of protecting the wildlife while still giving good recreational opportunities."
The study is part of the eMammal project, which trains citizen scientists in 18 countries to use camera traps to capture images of wildlife.
The research was published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.