There has been a drastic decline in elk numbers in Vail, Colorado from over 1000 to just over 50. Scientists say that this is due to an increase in the number of visitors and recreationists in the area. In fact, trail use in the area has more than doubled, with people being present nearly 24 hours a day, each day. Additionally, the visitors are coming deeper and deeper in the forests, leaving less undisturbed areas for the wildlife.
Please also read: Managing Visitors in Wilderness
To see what impact human presence might have on elk, a study was done where people were deliberately sent close to radiocollared elk. If an elk mother was disturbed seven times during calving, the calve had a 30% chance of dying. The reason for this result is not entirely clear. However, it is likely that the disturbed mothers run too far away for their calves to catch up, weakening them. Additionally, meeting humans also leads to greater stress for the mothers, resulting in lower milk production.
Increase in visitor numbers
The increase in the number of national park visitors is due to visitation campaigns as well as explosion of social media, where the natural gems become viral sensations. Due to an increased number of visitors many also go deeper in the natural areas to escape the crowds, reducing the area available for wildlife. Besides, visitation campaigns often focus on off-season visits, leading to the parks teeming with visitors at all times of the year. The outdoors tourism also brings a lot of economic profit to the local communities. For example, the value of outdoor recreation is $62 billion in Colorado’s economy this year. Therefore, discussions on reducing the number of visitors to reduce their impact on wildlife are very controversial.
In 2017, building of a new path through the elk calving area was proposed. This would have a severe effect on elk populations. Even if the path was closed during the calving season, some visitors would likely disregard the closure. By using it nonetheless, elk disruption would occur. To solve this issue, a group called the Vail Valley Maountain Trails Alliance launched a trail ambassador programme. They posted more informative signs at trail closures, and even used volunteers to explain the closure to hikers. This successfully led to a reduction in closure violations in 2018.