Sharing the Trails with our Furry Friends: A Guide for Mountain Bikers

Sharing the Trails with our Furry Friends: A Guide for Mountain Bikers

August 10, 2021

As trail users, it’s important to realize that we are recreating in the natural habitat of the wildlife that helps make this place so special. More specifically, as mountain bikers, it’s also crucial to understand that there are aspects of riding, namely speed, that present additional challenges compared to other user groups. This article isn’t meant to shame and discourage people from using the trails they love. It’s meant to educate and raise awareness about our impact on wildlife so that trail users can make informed decisions about how to potentially try and reduce that impact.

It’s all about predictability.

If there is one thing to take away from this article, it is the following point. Wildlife will adapt to human behaviour, and by making our activities more predictable and consistent, we help them do so.

To illustrate this point, consider a study that was conducted in the Kananaskis Lakes area in the summer of 2015. Using a GPS collar, the locations of a female grizzly bear were mapped out to show her locations on weekends vs weekdays. The figure below on the left shows the locations of the bear on all days of the week and provides an indication of her home range. The figure on the right shows the bear’s locations just on the weekends.

Bear locations on weekends and weekdays
Bear locations on weekends and weekdays

Bear locations on weekends
Bear locations on weekends

It’s pretty obvious to see that on the weekends, periods of highest human activity, the bear is avoiding a significant amount of her home range. The area in question is the facilities zone around Kananaskis Lakes, which hosts several popular campgrounds, day-use areas, and hiking trails.

This data strongly supports the notion that wildlife will avoid areas of high human activity. This is an important point for understanding the message to “stay on designated trails,” a recommendation that every trail user has heard or seen on a sign. This message is often misinterpreted to mean “stay out of wildlife corridors.” While the best-case scenario for the wildlife would be for humans to avoid recreating in the corridors period, the notion of staying on designated trails is implying that if you must move through a corridor, it’s much better to do it predictably.

To help clarify this point, consider the Highline trail, an officially sanctioned trail with connections that pass directly through a wildlife corridor. It is also a place where a number of illegally built trails exist. The figure below displays a map of the Highline and its three connectors overlaid on top of the wildlife corridor.

Highline connectors through the wildlife corridor
Highline connectors through the wildlife corridor

The connectors are designed to provide as predictable a path through the corridor as is possible. They run perpendicular to the corridor boundary and (quite notoriously) run as straight as possible through it. These features of the connectors help to provide a predictable path through the corridor that minimizes the time a user spends in it. They also reduce the overall trail footprint within the corridor. Ask yourself the question: “how big of an area could an animal be in whilst being undisturbed?” If the connectors have larger switchbacks, or we add more trail connections, that area gets cut up into smaller parts. Smaller areas support fewer animals and result in more conflict and encounters. If our premise that wildlife will avoid humans given a chance holds, then keeping traffic on the approved connections to maximize space for wildlife helps minimize human-wildlife interaction.

Things go wrong with respect to predictability when additional connections fall back down into the corridor, and paths that run parallel within it are built and popularized. This “spider-webbing” of trails leads to people following many different paths through the corridor, erratic behaviour from the perspective of wildlife trying to avoid human interaction.

The takeaway here is to think about how predictable your riding is based on the paths you are taking. By “staying on designated trails” we maximize that predictability.

Predictability happens in space and time.

Not only does where we recreate have an impact on our predictability when we recreate does as well. An area of active research is how wild animals adjust their behaviour to avoid human interaction based on the time of the day. A meta-analysis of 76 studies of 62 different species showed that wildlife is 38% more likely to be active at night in areas of high human use. The study itself can be found here.

Riding in the evening, especially with the rise in popularity of winter biking, is more likely to disrupt wildlife who are trying to avoid us by being more active at night. Being cognizant of this can help us make decisions about how often we ride in the evenings and provide an incentive to ride during the day when possible.

Surprising an animal is the least predictable thing you can do.

Everything discussed up until now is nothing specific to mountain biking. Making ourselves predictable is something that applies to all types of recreational activities on the trails. However, what is unique to mountain biking is speed. A mountain bike, depending on the type of trail, is capable of travelling at speeds that are orders of magnitude faster than hikers and runners. This speed makes it much easier to close the gap on an animal trying to avoid human interaction. Even worse, it also makes it much more likely to come upon a wild animal unaware, which is a worst-case scenario for a human-animal interaction.

An example of this situation was the story of Brad Treat, who was mauled by a Grizzly bear in 2016 just outside of Glacier National Park. Investigators concluded that Mr. Treat was travelling at high speed around a blind corner and collided with an unaware Grizzly. A number of prominent experts agree that mountain biking poses a unique risk to bears and other wildlife, something that is confirmed by a study from the University of British Columbia’s Wildlife Coexistence Lab.

Another factor that comes with recreating at speed is focus on the trail, rather than our surroundings. The faster we travel on a trail the more time our eyes must be focused on the trail to process what’s coming at us. This gives riders less time to examine their surroundings and what’s happening off of the trail. This “fast and focused” mentality can make it hard to spot our furry friends at a distance where it’s safe to adjust and avoid, and more likely to result in a close encounter.

Some of us mountain bikers are introverted folk, and we don’t like to do things like bear call on the trails. But bear calling and making noise on the trails can very well mean the difference between a surprise encounter and finishing your ride without a hitch. Bear call as much as you can, and the faster you are travelling, the more you should be calling. Bear calling also comes with the added benefit of letting other humans know you’re there too, and helps to avoid conflicts among users on multi-use trails.

Finally, have that bear spray available and know how to use it. Surprise encounters with wildlife can happen very quickly, giving us only seconds to react. Having bear spray on your person and available can be the difference between life and death. There are great products like Scat Belt and Bear Cozy that are designed to keep your bear spray accessible while also out of the way while you recreate. They are must-haves or any trail user.

We hope this article has given you a few things to think about when it comes to impact on wildlife.