Canyonlands Research Bibliography


Responses of Desert Bighorn Sheep to Increased Human Recreation

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Journal of Wildlife Management



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Human recreation has been implicated in the decline of several populations of desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni). Managers are concerned about the impart of increased recreation on desert bighorn sheep in Canyonlands National Park (NP), Utah, USA, where visitation increased 325% from 1979 to 1994. We compared behavioral responses of sheep to recreational activity between a low visitor use area and a high visitor use area during 1993 and 1994 by observing behavioral responses, distances moved, and duration of responses to vehicles, mountain bikers, and humans on foot. Hikers caused the most severe responses in desert bighorn sheep (animals fled in 61% of encounters), followed by vehicles (17% fled) and mountain bikers (6% fled), apparently because hikers were more likely to be in unpredictable locations and often directly approached sheep. We observed considerable individual heterogeneity in responses of bighorn sheep to the greater human use: some animals lived close to the road corridor and were apparently habituated to the human activities, but other animals avoided the road corridor. In the high-use area, we observed 3 radiocollared sheep that lived closer to the road than expected and found evidence of fewer responses to vehicles by females in spring, less response time of all sheep to vehicles in spring, and fewer responses to mountain bikers compared to the low-use area. Overall, there was an avoidance of the road corridor by most other bighorn sheep in the high-use area where all animals, on average, were found 39% farther from roads (490 +/- 19 m vs. 354 +/- 36 m) than in the low-use area. This avoidance of the road corridor by some animals represented 15% less use of potential suitable habitat in the high-use area over the low-use area. Increased sensitivity to hikers in the high-use area was suggested by a greater responsiveness by males in autumn and greater distance fled by females in spring. Responses of bighorn sheep were greater than human activity approached at the same elevation, when sheep were moving or standing, when female interactions occurred in spring and summer and male interactions occurred in autumn, and when sheep were farther from escape terrain. We recommend managers confine hikers to designated trails during spring lambing and the autumn rut in desert bighorn sheep habitat.

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