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A study recently published on PLOS ONE challenged the common belief that natural predators have the most influence on elk disturbance, in the form of vigilance and lack of feeding time. The authors pointed to human  influence as the leading cause of disturbance in areas with a high volume of land use, vehicle traffic, and proximate roads. The study suggests that human interaction can affect as much as 80% of elk vigilance in such areas, surpassing the affect of natural predators, such as wolves, on elk.

The previous school of thought has been that natural predators are the leading cause of disturbance on elk herds. In instances where wolves and elk coexist in the same area, the ‘trophic cascade’, or trickle-down effect, of wolves on elk occurred in two ways: first, elk populations declined in areas populated with wolves due to predation; and second,  vigilance of the remaining elk increased in association with wolf presence. However, the findings of the study suggest otherwise. In areas where human interference is high, the affect of predation on elk herds is decreased, while elk vigilance increases in response to human-caused factors.

The article concludes that the new prerogative for conservationists should be examining the affect of human interaction on species such as elk that are highly sensitive to human disturbance.

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Living in an area that boasts a healthy deer population, and which is also near the elk herds of Rocky Mountain National Park, I have encountered many situations that demonstrate this affect. On a recent trip to RMNP, I witnessed a group of people approaching a herd of elk who were grazing about 50 meters away from a road. The people had parked their cars on the shoulder and were walking off-trail towards the herd. Approaching wildlife in RMNP is permitted in certain areas to the extent that you do not disturb the wildlife. In this case, however, the herd’s bull elk was clearly on high alert, and was monitoring the approaching humans instead of grazing along with the cows.

In Boulder, too, I often witness deer who have stopped grazing to monitor approaching humans. Shooing deer out of your garden is one thing–approaching deer when they are grazing on Open Space  is another. Whether we are in a national park or on local Open Space, our presence and proximity to wildlife can affect the animals’ behavior.

The study’s findings indicate an increasing dilemma within conservation efforts. Human interaction is a critical component of conservation support: generally, we are far more likely to support national parks and wildlife preserves if we are allowed to use the protected areas to view wildlife. Consider what would happen if humans were no longer permitted to view bison in Yellowstone National Park, or could no longer go bird-watching in Adacia National Park. Public support, both financial and personal, would likely decrease significantly. But what happens when human interaction has a negative affect on the wildlife these parks are created to protect?

It is a catch-22: national parks and wildlife reserves rely on public support, and that support can only be garnered if the public is permitted to access the parks and wildlife. But public access to wildlife is interfering with some species’ behaviors and restricting the parks’ abilities to protect and preserve wildlife.

Links:

Study Finds the Effect of Humans on Elk Behavior Exceeds the Effect of Natural Predators

Original Article at PLOS ONE

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