Quest academic wants to know impact of recreational users on the corridor's wildlife 

Community in 'reactive mode' when it comes to thinking about land management and recreation

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOEL BARDE - busy busy Quest University's Kimberly Dawe is studying the relationship between our busy trails and Sea-to-Sky wildlife.
  • photo by Joel Barde
  • busy busy Quest University's Kimberly Dawe is studying the relationship between our busy trails and Sea-to-Sky wildlife.

A Quest University academic is hoping to give policy makers a better understanding of the impact of recreation on the Sea to Sky corridor's animal population—a topic that has received little study and is of increasing concern to many.

"Ultimately, my big question is, 'How do humans and wildlife (interact) in space and time in the Sea to Sky corridor?" said Kimberly Dawe during an April 17 presentation at Whistler's Maury Young Arts Centre.

During her well-attended talk, Dawe—who holds a PhD in Ecology from the University of Alberta—illustrated the growth of recreation in the corridor with a bevy of well-chosen statistics and introduced her Sea to Sky monitoring project, which is focused on medium and large mammals.

Right now, there is a "knowledge gap," with many believing human activity may be negatively affecting medium and large mammals, but limited data to back it up, explained Dawe. Policy makers are in a "reactive mode" when it comes to thinking about trail management and recreation, she said.

"We think there may be problems, but we still don't know," said Dawe. "Having more information can help us have a more productive conversation."

Population projections show significant increases in the region's population, and tourism is its top economic driver, she added.

Fifty-nine per cent of visitors to the South Coast region of B.C. are motivated by wildlife and sightseeing opportunities while 48 per cent are motivated by hiking, said Dawe, citing provincial statistics. Whistler alone attracts some 3 million visitors a year, she added.

Mountain biking is also on the rise. Non-resident mountain bikers completed an estimated 1.2 million rides in 2016, compared to an estimated 211,000 in 2006.

Yet despite all this, research into the impact of this activity on the region's wildlife is scant.

"We want to know what kind of impact we are having ... to be able to manage it,"" Dawe said. "We want to be able to make explicit decisions on what kind of impact we are willing to accept."

Busy trails can lead to a change in the natural dispersion of animals, with "prey species" attracted to "human areas," while predators stay away. This can create a "predator refuge in areas with much more human use," said Dawe.

During her presentation, she also hit on a controversial topic: the off-leash dogs that often accompany backcountry hikers.

Research suggests they can contribute to a "landscape of fear" for certain animals, said Dawe. "The literature suggests that cougars don't like to be disturbed by dogs, that they are negatively affected (by) them."

The goal of Dawe's monitoring project—known as the Sea to Sky Mammal Monitoring Project—is to better understand the impacts of outdoor recreation, determine risks of human-wildlife encounters, and integrate teaching and research opportunities for Quest University students.

Since 2017, Dawe has been monitoring the Tenquille to Owl Lake Recreation Area, near Pemberton, with remote cameras. She currently has 22 cameras set up over the area, with an additional 15 cameras to be installed in the near future. (The Pemberton Wildlife Association is supporting the project.)

Dawe has also secured "confirmed funding" for a number of cameras in the Shannon Basin area near Squamish, which has seen a heavy influx of visitors since the Sea to Sky Gondola opened in 2014.

The cameras are being used to test various hypotheses, such as the space hypothesis (that human trail-use decreases the abundance of wildlife on and in proximity to trails), the time hypothesis (that wildlife will use trails more frequently at night or on days with lower use during periods with high-human trail use), and human encounter risk (that encounter risk will be highest during lower human-use periods). Species-specific differences are expected.

Dawe has also identified the Resort Municipality of Whistler's alpine trail network as an area she is interested in studying. It was closed last September after two separate groups of hikers had close calls with a grizzly near Rainbow Lake.

"I'll approach the municipality and see if there is interest in getting a monitoring site set up here, and then maybe (in) some other areas around Whistler," said Dawe, following her presentation.

Dawe has also identified areas in the Pemberton area for study and is interested in how the potential introduction of user-fees or other user-visitation management strategies at Joffre Lake Provincial Park impacts them. "I'd really like to start monitoring in anticipation of (increased) user traffic over the coming years," she said.

Asked if she is in it for the long term, Dawe answered: "I'm a climber who lives in Squamish, and my partner (and I) have jobs in Squamish. So life is pretty good right now," she said with a laugh.


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