Ski tourism affects habitat use and evokes a physiological stress response in capercaillie Tetrao urogallus: a new methodological approach.
Human outdoor recreational activities are increasing and have a significant impact on wildlife. There are few methods suitable for investigating the response of rare and endangered species to human recreational activities, although the impact can be assessed at various scales by measuring both physiological and behavioural responses to disturbance. Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus are suffering strong population declines throughout central Europe. We examined the effects of ski tourism on capercaillie habitat use and adrenocortical activity, measured non-invasively in droppings. During three winters, 2003-06, we radio-tracked 13 capercaillie. In the southern Black Forest in Germany, we sampled 396 droppings of these and additional individuals before and after the start of the ski season. We tested whether the intensity of human winter recreational activities affected home range location and habitat use, and we identified those factors influencing the concentration of corticosterone metabolites (CM) in droppings. Capercaillie used habitats subject to ski tourism. Although the latter did not affect home range location, capercaillie preferred undisturbed forests within their home ranges and avoided areas with high recreation intensity in the ski season. Faecal CM levels of individuals in areas with low recreation intensity were significantly lower than those in areas with moderate or high recreation intensity during the entire study period. We conclude that ski tourism affects both habitat use and endocrine status in capercaillie, with potential negative consequences on body condition and overall fitness. Synthesis and applications. This study demonstrates the relevance of studying wildlife responses at various temporal and spatial scales, and the value of using multiple methods applied to the same individuals to monitor the impact of human recreational activities on a free-ranging species. In order to protect capercaillie populations, we recommend that managers keep forests inhabited by capercaillie free from tourism infrastructure and retain undisturbed forest patches within skiing areas.