Could Your Secret Hiking Trail Be Devastating Local Wildlife Populations?

An increase in outdoor recreation in recent years has driven elk populations in Vail, Colorado to the brink of extinction.

Over the past few years, social media has inspired many of us to wander further and deeper into what were once remote bastions of wilderness. A friend's awe inspiring Instagram post from a weekend hike will turn into a series of DMs in which you beg for the exact location of this evidently not-so-remote paradise. You receive a pinned location on Google Maps; from there, the secret's exponentially spilled. Most of us have been on either side of this seemingly innocuous interaction.

Along with blowing up mother nature's spot, it turns out our FOMO fueled wanderlust also has some devastating impacts on local wildlife populations—beyond Instagram influencers trampling seasonal super blooms.

The Guardian reports that this past February, researchers in Vail, Colorado were stunned when their annual elk count found only 53 elk in an area that usually sees over 1,000. Instead of elk tracks, they instead discovered an abundance of the long, parallel furrows left by backcountry skis.

Since 2009, trail use has more than doubled in Vail, making encounters with wildlife all the more common. This has been catastrophic for nursing elk who are sensitive to even the most subtle of disturbances.

Retired wildlife professor Bill Alldredge has been studying this particular elk population since the 1980s. His findings are remarkable:

"To measure the impact on calves, he deliberately sent eight people hiking into calving areas until radio-collared elk showed signs of disturbance, such as standing up or walking away...About 30% of the elk calves died when their mothers were disturbed an average of seven times during calving. Models showed that if each cow elk was bothered 10 times during calving, all their calves would die."

Education campaigns and increased signage have sprung up as a result of this population crisis—but these efforts can only do so much. As retired district wildlife manager Bill Andree points out, "when you ask people to stay out of the area no matter what the reason is, 80-90% obey you. But if you get 10% who don’t obey you, you haven’t done any good.”

So what's an adventure hungry seeker of isolated experiences with nature to do? Read and respect the signs, educate yourself, and stick to the designated trails.

Read more on The Guardian.