Even non-consumptive outdoor recreational activities - like hiking and biking – can lead to impacts or disturbance to ecosystem components such as vegetation, soils, air quality, water, and wildlife. While previous studies have examined the impacts of outdoor recreation on wildlife species, many of these studies have focused on recreation disturbance at small spatial scales. Although these smaller scales are important for the management of recreation impacts, wildlife often experience their environment on larger, landscape-level scales. Therefore, the scale at which we study recreation impacts may be mismatched to the scale at which wildlife function. Developing improved methods for quantifying and describing the level of recreation disturbance at larger scales could help to inform recreation management and elucidate potential impacts to wildlife species. Our study examines recreation disturbance at the landscape scale by utilizing software programs typically not used in recreation management: Fragstats and Conefor. The potential for recreation disturbance is measured via GPS-based tracking of visitors at three national parks. Different levels of recreation disturbance are then treated as habitat “types” and metrics common to the field of landscape ecology are generated to describe the level of impact from recreation use at a spatial scale important for wildlife species.
At the sites examined, recreation disturbance impacted a small (1.5% - 14%) percentage of the total landscape. However, that relatively small impacted area could be ecologically significant depending on location, level of impact, or the sensitivity of the ecosystem. Metrics generated from Fragstats illustrate that different levels of recreation disturbance often occur irregularly on the landscape. At wildlife sampling locations, recreation disturbance made up less than 8% of the total habitat area examined and some locations had almost no recreation disturbance at all. Measured using Conefor, the presence of recreation disturbance in a landscape reduced habitat connectivity by 11 – 12%. These initial results indicate that in these locations recreation disturbance may have relatively low levels of impact at the landscape scale and wildlife may be able to find refuges from recreation impact. However, the location and intensity of recreation disturbance is critical for predicting the overall level of ecological impact. Furthermore, the methods demonstrated illustrate ways of incorporating recreation disturbance into landscape-level analyses. The metrics generated in this study can be incorporated into models of wildlife habitat use and used to make management decisions in protected areas where both recreation use and wildlife and habitat conservation are management goals.