Can Hiking Trail Disturbance Benefit Rare Species?

ResearchBlogging.orgNow that I have been trained in recreation ecology, I am super sensitive to people hiking off-trail . Hiking with me can be no fun; if I see so much as a boot toe slip off the designated trail and hit vegetation, you will hear some sass from my direction. However, a recent article from The Canadian Field-Naturalist has raise an interesting question about recreation impacts: Are trail impacts always negative?  Can there be an ecological benefit to recreational use of trails to certain species? A pair of researchers from Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (which I assume is their equivalent to the U.S. Department of Agricultue) had observed that certain native, orchid species can often be found on the edge of recreation trails.  The presence of such sensitive species seems counter-intuitive. So Paul Catling and Brenda Kottiuk investigated the question of whether or not orchids could be benefiting from the presence of trails.

Calypso orchid along a hiking trail in Isle Royale National Park

Calypso orchid along a hiking trail in Isle Royale National Park

The study was conducted in six Canadian recreational areas that were known to have large orchid populations. The researchers looked for four species of native orchids. Some of the study sites included only a single species of orchid while others contained all species.  At each site the researchers collected the frequency of orchids at multiple near-trail areas (less than 1.5m from the trail) and multiple “far from a trail” areas (greater than 1.5m from the trail).  At the time of the study, all orchid species were flowering or fruiting which allowed for easy identification and for the researchers to measure plant fecundity (essentially, how much the plants are reproducing).

Turns out that hikers are not the only ones that like trails, orchids like them too! Higher densities of orchids were found in the sites at close proximity to trails as compared to far-from-trail sites.  This finding was consistent across all study sites. The number of orchid plants decreased as the distance from trails increased.  More flowering plants were found close to the trail as compared to farther from the trail. However, a greater  proportion of orchids were flowering at the far-from-trail sites.

It appears as if trail disturbance has a significant positive impact on native orchid species in Canada. Despite the fact that a lower proportion of orchids were flowering near the trail, the sheer different in total frequency was enough to make up for any near-trail loss in fecundity. What’s happening here? Shouldn’t the orchids be getting trampled to death by hikers? Or crushed by bikers? Well, it turns out that orchids do well in areas of disturbance. Although trampling does damage plants and compact soil, it also reduces competition between species, exposes mineral soil, and causes changes to light and microclimate. Trampling may cause just enough disturbance to benefit species like orchids.

The results of this study are particularly interesting, as the authors point out, because the normal reaction  of managers to finding rare species (such a orchids) along a trail is to close the trail to recreation. The thought is that recreation may disturb the species. However, in the case of Canadian orchids, limiting or cutting off recreation could actually have negative consequences for the species.  This study also highlights the bias among many recreation ecologists to only examine the “bad” and never the “good” impacts of recreation use. There may need to be a paradigm shift where our research frames recreation infrastructure as a possible benefit to the ecosystem under some circumstances and not just a bane to the ecosystem.

Reference:

Paul M. Catling, & Brenda Kostiuk (2012). Come Wild Canadian Orchids Benefit from Woodland Hiking Trails – and the Implications The Canadian Field-Naturalist, 125

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3 thoughts on “Can Hiking Trail Disturbance Benefit Rare Species?

  1. Thanks for posting this. I have also wondered about the trail microsystem, if you will. For instance, many other mammals share use of trails. The coyote is the most noticalbe, because they often leave scat for evidence (as well as tracks). However, trail cameras have documented many mammals (snakes, too) that utilize common navigation routes such as trails. I have also noticed differential growth density in some plants alongside trails compared to away from trails, which I had attributed to increased light. Interesting to know that a common benefit can be attributed to managed trails! It might be interesting to investigate this more thoroughly in different ecoregions, especially semi-arid and arid areas.

    • As a newbie, if you will, to the environmental studies world I very much enjoyed your drawing attention to this matter. I am currently taking a class on recreational use of national parks where we often discuss user conflicts in recreation areas. It is refreshing to see that there are projects that seek to challenge some of the common conflicts, in this case, trail disturbance. I am curious to know if you have conducted further research that pertains to the point you made about the benefits versus the negative affects of recreational use? Any additional information you come across would be greatly appreciated. Best of luck in your future ecological career!

  2. Thanks for your comment B.Keim! As far as my own research is concerned, I have not explored the idea of the benefits of recreation use to particular species. Most of the research done in the recreation ecology field is often driven by the needs of managers of parks and protected areas and often those needs are focused on mitigating the negative impacts of recreation. So although I do think that more research should be conducted to examine potential benefits of recreation use in certain areas, in my experience, most of the research that is funded examines negative impacts. However, if i do come across any other papers similar to Catling and Kottiuk’s, I will definitely post the findings here.

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