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Tread Lightly on the Landmarks: Balancing Public Recreation with Preservation

PictureLong Tailed Weasel

The Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks are home to diverse natural communities and native species and welcome visitors to the lands daily. Recreational programs encourage outdoor activity and help the public build a relationship with the lands, and stewardship programs welcome volunteers to help restore the Landmarks for future generations to enjoy. Yet with human presence comes unavoidable impacts to the ​open spaces, whether recreating on the trails or restoring natural resources during stewardships.

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Human Impacts on Wildlife
When humans come into contact with natural habitats, even if staying on trail, a sphere of impact occurs. The impact goes beyond a boot print, tire track, or hoof mark, resonating throughout ecosystems farther than the eye can see. Each person or group that visits the lands leaves a literal and environmental foot print, resulting in changes in wildlife behavior. Changes include avoiding or abandoning habitat areas and condensing wildlife into more competitive areas, altered feeding behaviors, and becoming active at night instead of during the day.
 
Digital wildlife cameras have been in place on the Landmarks for over a decade, and monitor human and wildlife activity concurrently on a long-term basis. Data from the cameras have revealed that human presence can affect wildlife in a substantially wide radius. A large human presence in wilderness areas can affect wildlife “hot spots” acres away.
 
Wildlife hot spots are typically found in the center of large blocks of open space, and cameras have detected changes in behavior following human activity ranging from just a few people to large groups. While these changes in behavior occur after human activity, once humans’ impact dissipates the animals typically resume their behavior if the natural habitat is largely undisturbed. Non-human related behavioral changes, such as courtship and territorial displays, are also detected during seasonal peaks of wildlife activity, and these peaks are taken into account by recreation and restoration program directors to help preserve the integrity of wildlife hot spots.
 
Research and Monitoring
Research and monitoring are vital to the preservation process and essential if parks and protected areas are to balance the dual needs of nurturing appreciation of the land and giving wildlife an environment where they can survive and reproduce. Unmanaged human disturbances on the open spaces may result in ramifications for predator-prey dynamics, and ultimately upset the delicate ecosystems of the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks.
 
Given the increase in wildfires, studies have shown that human presence in burn areas can be just as harmful as human presence to thriving habitats.  The overall takeaway for human contact on the lands is that moderation and awareness are key.
 
Research and monitoring support adaptive management, and both efforts help to strategically implement hiking, biking, and equestrian programming. Defining high, medium, and low intensity areas of activity benefit both the visitor to the lands and the protection of native species.  The key to appreciation and preservation of the opens spaces lies in eco-friendly programs and year-round monitoring and observation.