By Gwendolyn Craig
A number of environmental organizations have called for limits on use in the Adirondack Park’s High Peaks and for hikers to spread themselves out in the 6 million-acre park.
But working diligently in the background is a group of scientists trying to find out if dispersing hikers is a good idea. Their hunch is that it’s not.
“There’s a push to spread people out, (assuming) the disturbance would be less, but I’d actually argue that there will be more,” Heidi Kretser told Adirondack Explorer in an interview earlier this summer.
Kretser is a conservation social scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has partnered with Paul Smith’s College’s Adirondack Watershed Institute. Funded through a National Science Foundation grant, they’re studying the impacts of human recreation on wildlife.
Michale Glennon, science director of the Adirondack Watershed Institute, echoed Kretser’s concerns.
“Drawing upon our years of research on residential development and its impacts on wildlife, my sense is that the ecological impacts are greater if the use is spread all over than if the use can be clustered into a smaller number of more highly visited areas,” Glennon said.
Kretser and Glennon are aware their points of view go against what a number of local groups, like the Adirondack Council and Protect the Adirondacks, have advocated.
Protect the Adirondacks released this summer a guide of hikes outside of the popular High Peaks Wilderness Area. Executive Director Peter Bauer had said in a release that the destinations “are wonderful places, many off the beaten path, that are far outside the busy High Peaks Wilderness. Getting a parking spot to the hike of your choice is a crapshoot in the High Peaks.”
John Sheehan, communications director for the Adirondack Council, said his organization has no qualms with what the Wildlife Conservation Society is studying.
“I think it’s important to remember that some of the most rare and sensitive wildlife habitat is in the High Peaks, and the damage to that is one of the reasons we’re thinking this in the first place,” Sheehan said. “We definitely don’t want to see a willy-nilly spreading out across the park, or even the forest preserve.”
Sheehan would like to see the state invest in studying where hikers can spread while having less impact on wildlife and water quality.
“We want to see the science continue to be the guiding force here,” Sheehan added.
Helping WCS and AWI with their science are a number of scientific peer-reviewed papers and their findings—that human recreation often has a negative impact on most species. Human presence can cause animals to choose avoiding people over foraging, to reduce their reproductive success, and to move or increase their stress, as a few examples.
Through October and again next summer, Kretser, Glennon and their field crew will continue interviewing hikers, putting out wildlife cameras and birdsong recorders as part of their study. The data they collect will take years to analyze, but ultimately they hope it will tell the story of what’s happening in the Adirondacks.
Then, Glennon said, the research could help guide state and federal policies and future education and management of the Adirondacks and other parks.
At the end of July, Sanjay Sidwani, from the New York City area, pulled up to the Rooster Comb parking lot in Keene.
Courtney Garrity, a field crew member for the Wildlife Conservation Society, sat at the trailhead. She wore a face mask and carried an iPad. Sidwani walked up to her and asked if he had to pay for parking.
Garrity said no, and moved into her script for the study. She asked Sidwani to participate in a survey. He agreed.
The back-and-forth lasted just over 10 minutes. Through the survey Sidwani said he was visiting with his family. He had gotten information about their hike from a website, “AllTrails.” He “possibly” would have visited the Adirondacks if there were not a pandemic. He was unlikely to help on a trail maintenance project in the Adirondacks, but he was “somewhat” likely to make a donation to a conservation organization.
Sidwani somewhat agreed to prohibiting hiking in certain areas, and somewhat agreed that a permit system should be in place. (Sidwani had secured one of the last parking spots at Rooster Comb on a Monday).
Garrity also tested the downstate resident’s knowledge of the area’s wildlife and rules and regulations. She later explained what he got correct and incorrect. Sidwani knew, for example, that the state has a regulation requiring bear-resistant canisters and Garrity told him about the infamous bear, “Yellow Yellow,” who had learned how to open earlier versions of the storage container.
“Our bears are too smart, and we can’t use those bear cannisters anymore,” Garrity said.
This was Garrity’s fourth hiker survey of the day.
Oftentimes she is asked questions outside her job scope like, “what mountain is that,” or, “how do I get to Marcy?” A man asked her if Rooster Comb would be an appropriate climb for someone who had just had a hip replacement.
Usually between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., Garrity will take a tally of how many hikers go by. She has met people from all walks of life and with all different opinions.
“It’s still incredible how large this place is, and how invested people are in conservation,” Garrity said. “Farmer, hunter, birder, everyone around here is pretty connected to the land, and they have their reasons for wanting it to be protected.”
Over the course of the summer, the field crew survey on 33 trails in the Adirondacks. Glennon and Kretser rated them all as either low, medium or high for hiker traffic.
But even the “less visited” sites are getting harder to find, Glennon said, based on her own experience and conversations with forest rangers. Still, the study has managed to involve a variety of trails.
While the cameras won’t reveal how many animals are passing through, Glennon said they will provide snapshots of the species composition. By seeing what kinds of creatures are on what level-of-use trails, the study can determine how people might be changing the wildlife community.
Glennon suspects, for example, that moose will be more sensitive to human presence than deer. Chipmunks and squirrels tend to benefit from having hikers around because they carry food.
“The same circumstance applies to bears but in the case of bears the situation can easily turn deadly for the bear as a result of negative human-bear interactions and public safety,” Glennon said.
Reptiles and amphibians are not as well-studied, but Glennon worries about them, too. She pointed to a 20-year study done in Connecticut that found a population of wood turtles had declined due to a protected area being opened to the public. The turtles faced a number of complications from that decision including getting run over by cars, disturbed or hurt by dogs and handled by people.
On a Monday morning in August, Valerie Ellison, a field crew member, was tasked with taking down trail cameras posted near the trailhead of Round Pond in Keene. It is one of the more popular sites.
The study has 16 trail cameras total and four are placed at a trailhead, rotating among the 33 total sites. The cameras are left up for 10 days. Two are placed close to hiker foot traffic. The other two are set up in the woods on suspected game trails.
With a GPS in hand, Ellison hiked the Round Pond trail, looking for the cameras. Sometimes they are conspicuous. One just off the hiking trail had 758 photos.
Other times, the cameras are harder to find. Ellison treaded through brush and bramble to find the game trail cameras. One had 39 photos.
“Let’s hope it’s not just deer,” Ellison said.
Garrity off-loaded the images from the memory card to her computer later that day at the Rooster Comb parking lot. Some of the game trail cameras only had photos of the field crew setting up the camera.
Though the cameras are labeled with contact information for the Wildlife Conservation Society and are put up with a DEC permit, Garrity said hikers have come across them in the past and decided to smash them or take out the memory card. Now, however, the cameras are placed in a lock box.
“The intention is not to take pictures of the hikers,” Garrity said. “We keep them waist-level and angle them down to communicate our intention.”
While they have yet to review the thousands upon thousands of photos collected so far, a few highlights have stood out.
“We got a moose up on Silver Lake Mountain,” Garrity said. “Bear, fox, and tons of deer, coyotes, and a bunch of domestic dogs, and then just a ton of people. Tons and tons of people.”
Once she transferred the Round Pond images, Garrity took the cameras up the Rooster Comb Mountain trail to put them up for 10 days.
The process can be tricky. There can’t be too much vegetation in front, or wind whipping branches could trigger the camera too often. Finding a game trail is even harder. Garrity said she looks for deer tracks or clearing in brush for where animals might pass through.
Earlier in the summer, much smaller creatures were the study’s focus.
Glennon said they placed what’s called a Swift acoustic monitoring unit, developed by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, to record birdsongs. They set up the units during migratory bird season and recorded twice in the morning and once at dusk.
In other years, the study would have had a skilled birder do the listening.
“One of the advantages to this approach,” Glennon said of the recording units, “is that the data are permanent, so we can explore the recordings and do a number of analyses on them in addition to just noting which species were detected.”
Given the mixed habitat in the Adirondacks, Glennon said the study could expect to document around 50 different bird species.
Like the photos on the cameras, the birdsong recordings “are the means of assessing the relationship between recreational use and characteristics of wildlife communities,” Glennon added.
Birds like crows and blue jays tend to thrive around humans. They’ll eat hikers’ food, while crows will eat roadkill and they’re more aggressive than other bird species. Hawks, eagles, herons, some songbirds and loons might be more sensitive to humans, Glennon said.
Glennon and Kretser hope a graduate student might sift through the data they collect. There are plenty of photos and recordings to go through.
There are also hiker responses to tally. Some visitors even agreed to send photos to the Wildlife Conservation Society showing what they thought might be good habitat for wildlife on the trail they were hiking, and what might be considered bad habitat.
Someone will eventually count the number of hikers that passed by the trail cameras, too, and may take note of the hikers headed for the state’s highest peak at 3 p.m. Garrity and her colleagues have seen it all.
Glennon said they are sharing their findings with the DEC and have appreciated the agency’s support.
“Current trends suggest continued increases in use of recreational areas worldwide, with climate change and a global pandemic contributing to those trends,” Glennon said. “We hope that bringing data from our own system to the discussion can help set the stage for productive approaches to management.”