LNT: Respect Wildlife

This is part 6 of a 7 part series exploring the why’s and how’s of practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

The sixth principle, respect wildlife, encourages people to view wildlife from a distance and to minimize your impact on the animals’ natural behavior and movement patterns.

Why respect wildlife?

Oh, hello there.

Part of the excitement of venturing out into the wilderness is to catch a chance of seeing native wildlife. Stumbling across a large animal in the wild is breathtaking. But our actions can have negative impact on the animals that live there. Animals have roamed in our wild spaces since long before humans moved in. It is important to give them space, allow them access to food and water sources and not let our enthusiasm to get a great photo for social media lead us down the road to bad behavior.

The diversity of wildlife differs depending on where you hike. If you explore the forests, think about animals like moose, bears, squirrels, owls and snakes. If you wander the deserts, consider critters like lizards, desert tortoise, tarantulas and bighorn sheep. Along ocean beaches there may be seals, ground-nesting birds and tide pool invertebrates. In urban parks, prepare for raptors, rodents, deer and songbirds.

With a mindful approach to hiking you can experience memorable nature encounters without harming wildlife.

Bird in the desert.

How to respect wildlife?

First, don’t take an action that directly harms wildlife, such as touching a wild animal. Each year, remarkable stories come out of the National Park System, where people put their kids on the backs of bison, try to pet bears and put deer in the back of their car. These are egregious acts that are not done in the spirit of respecting wildlife. But thankfully, most people do not engage in these activities. However, almost everyone I know has done the next item…

Secondly, do not feed wild animals. Ever. For any reason. I can’t begin to count how many photos I see of people feeding birds in the wild. The reason that some birds are so aggressive around campsites and popular hiking trails is because people FEED THEM! The same goes for ground squirrels. There are certain places, most notably along well-traveled National Parks trails, where the squirrels are so bold you can’t put your backpack on the ground without having a swarm of rodents digging through your pack for food. Our food is not part of these animals’ natural diets. In addition, when animals lose their fear of humans they become pests and can also be a safety risk. This is most obvious in the case of bears, but rodents (such as squirrels) can carry diseases that can be spread to humans and our pets.

Third, maintain your distance from animals, animal water sources and animal nesting grounds. When you see an animal in the wild, like the bighorn sheep below, remain quiet. Move slowly and monitor the animal’s behavior. If it appears distressed by your presence, back away! In this very fortunate bighorn sighting shown in the photo, mama sheep looked pretty upset with me so I backed behind a rock and tried not to stare right at her so she’d calm down. Eventually mama and baby retreated to another part of the mountain where they were able to sit and relax. I was able to watch them for another 20 minutes before we left our perch. At that distance I was no longer able to take any photos, but I really got to enjoy seeing the sheep behave as they would in the wild. If you are seriously interested in taking nature photos, then I highly recommend investing in a camera with a telephoto lens. If that’s out of your price range, then simply enjoy the opportunity to see wildlife through your own eyes.

A very lucky bighorn sighting!

If you’ve ever camped in the backcountry you’ve probably seen regulations regarding pitching your tent at least 200 feet from water. This rule is put into place to protect animal access to water. When you camp on the edge of a lake or river, you prevent local wildlife from being able to drink where they normally would. Please learn about and respect the rules about camping in whatever park or forest you choose to recreate in.

In addition, some parks will have seasonal closures due to protecting nesting habitat. Rock climbers are very familiar with these closures for raptors. Beachcombers, too, need to avoid certain areas while shorebirds are nesting. These rules protect animals at their most vulnerable times and it is necessary for all of us to read the signage and learn where not to go. In these limited access times, there are always plenty of other places to hike, camp and explore.

Venomous or non-venomous? Either way, leave it alone.

Finally, remember that wild animals are just that: wild. They may bite you if you harass them or get in their space, whether you mean to or not. Learn more about the types of animals that live in the areas you visit. Keep your eyes and ears open for signs of animals. Understand how your recreation choices have an impact on their behavior. And keep your distance as best as you can. Often, wildlife encounters are quick and fleeting. So instead of wasting time reaching for your camera, try standing still and watching that animal closely as long as they stick around. That memory will last a lifetime. 

Questions about anything you read? Leave a comment! I’d love to hear more about how you practice Leave No Trace.