Statistical methods for analysing responses of wildlife to human disturbance.

Published online
03 May 2006
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Preisler, H. K. & Ager, A. A. & Wisdom, M. J.
Contact email(s)

Publication language
North America


Off-road recreation is increasing rapidly in many areas of the world, and effects on wildlife can be highly detrimental. Consequently, we have developed methods for studying wildlife responses to off-road recreation with the use of new technologies that allow frequent and accurate monitoring of human-wildlife interactions. To illustrate these methods, we studied the response of Rocky Mountain elk Cervus elaphus L. to all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), one of the most prominent forms of summer recreation in North America. We studied elk because the species is not only of keen economic and social interest across North America and Europe but also exemplifies species that can be sensitive to human disturbance. The study was part of a controlled landscape experiment where global positioning system (GPS)-equipped recreationists traversed an established 32-km route inside a 1453-ha elk-proof enclosure. Elk locations before and during the human disturbances were monitored using an automated telemetry system. The unique data set and study objectives led to our development of statistical methods for analysing the response of wildlife to human disturbance. We developed a statistical method, referred to as a probabilistic flight response, which accounted for daily circadian rhythms in movement behaviour of elk, and related the probability of flight to distance to the disturbance and a number of environmental covariates. We also present methods for estimating spatially and temporally explicit movement vectors as a way of detecting and visualizing landscape-level movement patterns. Using these methods, we observed that elk appeared to respond at relatively long distances (>1000 m) to ATVs, and that the estimated probability of flight appeared to be higher when elk were closer to the ATV routes, even when the distance to an ATV was large. Our study quantifies the response of wildlife to human disturbance at a resolution well beyond previous work, and provides methods to improve our understanding of wildlife-human interactions related to management of wildlife and recreation. These methods may be used for any study involving accurate, frequent monitoring of animals and humans with the use of GPS or similar technologies now commonly available.

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