My PhD research separates hiking trails into 3 categories of human use: low (less than 100 people per month), medium (101-1449 people per month), and high (more than 1450 per month). These numbers are based on other research projects over time that have shown how animals react to human traffic or how peoples’ presence and use can change habitat values in a protected area. Research has shown that grizzly bears like to have at least 65% of their home range or territory is areas of no to low human use (sometimes called secure habitat).
But what does low human use look like? And where is it?
My perception and the reality
When I sat to really think about what low human was and where it might be in the Rocky Mountain National Parks, I was a little stumped. 100 people per month? Even the trails that I thought might be low human use have around 500 people per month (as I’m finding with the remote cameras). Where are trails with 100 people per month? Do they even truly exist in a complex of National Parks that see over 5 million visitors per year? I wasn’t so sure.
There are, of course, low use trails in Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho, you just haven’t really heard of them because hardly anybody ever goes there. These aren’t the magnificent, postcard picture trails. These are the unmaintained hiking trails. Some of them are old fire roads that are no longer used, others are old wagon trails, some are old hiking trails that have been significantly washed out from floods or other events and then not reconstructed.
One thing most of these trails have in common is that they go through prime wildlife habitat, typically valley bottoms. Because of this, they don’t have spectacular views, so not many people hike on them. Because of that, they aren’t really a priority for maintenance after flooding events.
These trails are hard hiking. The views are limited and there is some minor bush-whacking and perhaps some deadfall to climb over/under.
But the adventure… well that is boundless.
A trip into the wilderness
I love going in to the back country in the Rockies. I love that the trails are clearly laid out, the campsites are designated, there are bear poles to hang your smelly things, other hikers to chat to. I also like that if I want a little solitude, I can sit on the edge of a lake or creek or in a meadow and take a moment to myself, but I know there are other people around if something were to happen. But I also LOVE it when none of those things are there.
This past week, a couple volunteers and I put some cameras up on a low human use hiking trail. We were warned by Parks staff that nobody has really been in there this year and that there would likely be some deadfall to negotiate. We arranged for our wilderness camping permits and put a plan in place. I was beyond excited to get into some of the true wilderness of our national parks.
The hike was along an old wagon trail and followed a river valley for over 18km. The trail was well defined, but very overgrown in some parts. There were 320 trees to climb over, crawl under, or somehow negotiate around. There was little elevation change, which was a huge blessing because the walking was already challenging.
The first night, we camped in a wash out from last year’s flood as it was the only place we could find water and flat spots for the tents. We strung our food up a snagged tree well away from our tents and went to sleep exhausted after battling with knee high vegetation and deadfall for the past few hours. The next night we reached a barely visited warden cabin and spent the night in a lovely meadow filled with flowers. It was luxury in comparison to the night before.
Where the animals are
The first thing that struck me about this trail was the amount of animal sign. All the animals. Everywhere. All the time. Every patch of mud had animal tracks in it – moose, deer, cougar, lynx, black bear, grizzly bear, small mammals, and birds even. There was scat everywhere! Wolf scat, bear scat, cat scat. At one point, there was a pile of bear scat about every 50m on average. It was insane.
There were no boot prints other than ours. Not a one.
There could be no doubt that we were in a part of the forest that was completely run by the critters. And I loved that! Magical!
We made a lot of noise. I wasn’t really interested in coming around a corner in an over grown forest and seeing a bear. We didn’t see any animals, but they all knew we were there.
The forest felt alive in a way I’ve rarely experienced. Whenever we stopped, there were birds singing and bush cracks off in the distance. At night, there were many different noises coming from the forest of things walking around. One of our cameras took a picture of a wolf and a moose that has just walked through our camp in the cover of darkness. It was inspiring, a little nerve wracking, and amazing.
The other thing that was really amazing to see was the quality of the habitat. This trail wasn’t a great hike for people. It didn’t go up to a summit or a pass and the views weren’t great. We walked the length of the valley bottom as it changed from swamp to old forest fire burns to a partial cedar forest to spruce forest, through small meadows and bogs. All the while, the habitat was rich and full of food – bear food, moose food, bird food, deer food. The habitat was so rich, I felt when we were quiet I could hear the forest eating and breathing.
It was so awesome to see what a trail looks like when humans are taken out of the equation. Animals use it ALL the time. They walked on that trail like it was a highway, and in their reality it was. It was the river valley highway, going from one end to the other. The forest was way too thick and overgrown for efficient walking, so no point in even trying.
Without us, the forest is alive. It’s alive when we’re in it too, there’s no doubt about that. But without people, there is a different level of vibration in the forest. The animal activity is like none I’ve ever seen before. They definitely take advantage of the places where we aren’t. And that is not an accident.
This trip cemented in me the reasons I do this research. There’s a balance to be struck here. Animals obviously prefer to use trails without people on them, even though they will still use human-used trails to access high quality food resources. But at what point is there too many people? At what point is it not worth it for a bear to try and access food because there are just too many people to deal with as well?
While I was putting up remote cameras on a very busy hiking trail last year, a hiker stopped to tell me that I was wasting my time, I wasn’t going to see bears on this trail because it was a conveyor belt of people. She was right in a sense, there were no bears on the cameras. But the GPS data showed that there were a couple of bears active in that valley at the time. Those bears must have been getting around the landscape with other trails. Maybe it’s not a big deal, but if those other trails are hard walking, maybe it is.
I don’t know the answers to these bigger questions, but I’m going to do my best to try and find out what’s going on out there. One trail at a time.