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Understanding wildlife activity and the impacts of recreation on wildlife in Washington State Parks

This is a continuation of a 2021 CREOi-funded project. Washington State Parks are increasingly becoming islands within a developed landscape. These islands have become important areas supporting human physical and mental well-being. However, there is concern that higher rates of use of state parks are putting greater pressure and stress on wildlife species for which the parks may provide some of the last remaining habitat. To effectively manage and protect wildlife, as well as provide meaningful ways for people to connect with nature, it is critical to have a better understanding of which wildlife species are present and how recreation impacts their activity. Specifically, the objectives of this project are to determine the temporal and spatial patterns of wildlife use of Washington State Parks and whether human recreational use impacts these patterns.

Fisher using a snowy trail at Olallie State Park.

In summer 2021, researchers installed wildlife cameras at four Washington State Parks that receive high levels of recreation, including multiple special recreation events (e.g., trail running and mountain bike races) each year. In 2022, the study was expanded to include camera installations at four additional parks. At each of the parks, ten cameras were distributed on trails in areas receiving low, medium or high relative recreational use. In the summer of 2023, after all cameras had collected data in one location for at least one year, three “game trail” camera locations (~250 m from established trails) were added at each park. The intention of these locations was to collect data on wildlife activity in the relative absence of human activity. Data analysis is on-going and will be completed in fall 2024 after all cameras have collected at least one full year of data.

Camera images revealed wildlife in all parks, including deer, squirrels, cougars, black bears, coyotes, raccoons, bobcats, pika and fishers. The images of fishers were particularly notable as this is a state endangered species and was the focus of a 5-year reintroduction effort in the Cascade Range (where the photo was taken); the data from these images have been shared with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Preliminary analyses of camera image data suggest that the distribution of wildlife activity throughout the day differs between the parks. For example, at Larrabee State Park, the most visited of the parks, all wildlife observations were at night. Meanwhile, at Beacon Rock State Park, which is less frequented by visitors, the majority of observations were at dusk. Finally, camera images of human activity compared to Strava Heatmaps (location tracking data from athletic subscription service) found that “heatmaps” (density of location data) provide an accurate assessment of relative human trail use, suggesting that this free, easy-to-use platform can be used to augment human use data from cameras, and is a valuable resource itself for managing recreational impacts.

The graduate student supported by this award, Marcela Todd Zaragoza, will be finalizing data collection and analyses by Fall 2024. In addition to the camera trapping effort, she will be conducting a series of semi-structured interviews with land managers in the Pacific Northwest to understand the interviewees’ experience with outdoor recreation management, their knowledge of best management practices, and the challenges they face in implementing recommendations. These interviews will be analyzed using qualitative content analysis to identify patterns and themes that emerge, including trade-offs, challenges and suggestions. It is expected that the results of this study will be used to inform recreation management at Washington State Parks and possibly other public lands.