Skip to content
Home » Projects » Understanding wildlife activity and the impacts of recreation on wildlife in Washington State Parks

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

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 that we have a better understanding of what wildlife species are present and how recreation impacts their activity. In 2021, CREOi helped fund the first year of a multi-year study to understand the impacts of recreation on wildlife within Washington state parks. The first year of this research focused on establishing a baseline understanding of the presence and distribution of wildlife species in several parks that receive high levels of recreational use. The second and third years of this project will focus on answering specific questions related to recreational impacts on wildlife species. Specifically, our objectives are to determine:

  1. Which wildlife species are using these parks?
  2. When are wildlife active within these parks?
  3. Does recreation impact the spatial activity of wildlife (e.g., do wildlife avoid more heavily used areas?)
  4. Does recreation impact the temporal activity of wildlife (e.g., are wildlife more active at times typically considered their ‘normal’ activity periods?)
Julie Morse and Andrea Thorpe installing a camera at Larrabee State Park.

In summer 2021, we installed wildlife cameras at four parks that receive high levels of recreation, including multiple special recreation events (e.g., trail running and mountain bike races) each year: Larrabee State Park near Bellingham, Fort Ebey State Park on Whidbey Island, Beacon Rock State Park near Stevenson, and Moran State Park on Orcas Island. Ten cameras were distributed throughout each of the parks. Each camera was visited winter 2021 and spring/early summer 2022 to exchange memory cards and ensure batteries maintained sufficient charge

Images of wildlife were captured by cameras in all four parks. At Larrabee, we have identified three deer, a squirrel, and a cougar stalking an unidentified small mammal. At Beacon Rock, we have identified several deer, a raccoon, coyotes, a black bear cub, and a cougar. The two island parks, Fort Ebey and Moran, were less diverse. Deer were observed on cameras at both of these parks; racoons were also identified in pictures from Moran.

Our initial assessment of the camera images suggests that the proportion of wildlife activity during the day vs. dusk/night differs between the parks. At Larrabee, the most visited of the parks, all wildlife observations were at night. At Beacon Rock, the majority of observations were at dusk/night with the exception of a few images of deer and one of the coyote observations. In contrast, deer were active throughout the day and night on Moran.

Additional data and analyses are needed to more thoroughly address these questions as well as questions 3 and 4. However, conducting this study has already helped increase awareness of the potential recreation impacts on wildlife in state parks. State Parks stewardship staff have presented an overview of this project to the Washington State Parks Foundation, Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, and during internal interdepartmental meetings. They have also discussed this project and potential implications for management of other state lands with staff at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Washington Department of Natural Resources.