Why do you go where you go when you set foot on trails in Kananaskis Country?
Do you consider the difficulty of a route, accessibility and wildlife warnings? Do you have a scenic summit view in mind to capture the perfect landscape shot or selfie?
Researchers at the University of Alberta want to know the answer to these questions and why, in particular, people wander off on unofficial trails in the region.
“It’s not about laying blame anywhere because I think we all use undesignated trails from time to time, but it’s understanding what pushes more of us towards that unofficial trail use,” said Elizabeth Halpenny, who conducts research in the areas of tourism, marketing environmental psychology and protected areas management with the university.
“Why is that a big deal? Well, because unofficial trails tend to go into habitat that ideally is being protected for wildlife and wildlife only.”
Researchers are in the field conducting surveys on trails to study recreationalist behaviour, assess people’s knowledge of wildlife – especially bears – and understand the impacts of unofficial trail use on wildlife and sensitive habitats in the Spray, Bow, and Kananaskis valleys.
Halpenny said the study will help reveal some of the social sciences behind why people use unofficial trails, also known as pirate trails, which are not managed, marked, or have any wayfinding signs provided by Alberta Parks or Public Lands.
“The most complicated animal of all is us humans and this is about trying to understand what goes into either our lack of decision-making or our choice-making when it comes to the trails that we use,” said Halpenny.
The study feeds into part of a bigger project known as the Canmore Corridor Project and will help determine a Canmore Area Trails Strategy, or CATS. Its findings will also be presented to Alberta Parks officials to guide trail management strategies, as well as published in academic journals.
The survey asks questions like how confident one is in knowing the difference between an official and unofficial trail; if they avoid trails with active wildlife warnings; how likely they would be to turn around if running into a bear on the trail; how likely they are to keep dogs on a leash; whether they avoid or are attracted to more popular areas and what activities trail users partake in, including hiking, running, overnight backpacking, fishing and others.
“We’re also looking at reasons people choose to stay on designated trails,” said Halpenny. “That’s the flip side is why do they maybe prefer those and what’s special about them, and trying to understand that a bit more so we can play that up in management and enhance the best qualities of designated trails, so people find them more appealing.”
Kananaskis Country sees about four million visitors annually, and as visitation grows the need to find strategies to discourage people from venturing onto unofficial trails and potentially sensitive areas where wildlife is less expectant to run into people becomes even more pronounced, she noted.
Nick de Ruyter, program director of Bow Valley WildSmart which is part of the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley, said successful human-wildlife coexistence hinges on predictability.
If people stick to designated trails, animals can more easily navigate terrain, feed, mate and raise young, however, as human behaviour becomes less predictable and more pirate trails appear, it becomes more challenging for many species, including bears, wolves, elk and others to thrive.
“A lot of people don’t really think about it from that standpoint, but if we stay on those designated trails and don’t go on the ones we shouldn’t be on, we become more predictable and we allow wildlife the space to live their daily lives,” de Ruyter said.
“At a certain point, if we are everywhere, on all the trails – official or not – at all hours of the day; if wildlife never gets any time for themselves, some animals like grizzly bears and wolves would likely just leave this area and not come back.”
Environmental impacts also extend to the overall footprint in Kananaskis, where more trails create a greater risk of habitat degradation and erosion, and affect the area’s overall aesthetics and visitor appeal.
A January 2023 study led by the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) and the University of Northern British Columbia found about one-quarter of all trails surveyed in southeastern B.C. and southwestern Alberta, including Kananaskis Country, the Ghost Public Land Use Zone, Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks are undesignated.
“About 45.9 per cent were trails with recreation information, of which a noteworthy 24 per cent originated from undocumented sources. Undocumented trails typically do not appear in management-based databases, so they are likely not included in management decisions. Yet, they contribute to the overall recreation footprint of the area,” states the Y2Y report.
“Identifying undocumented trails provided our study with a deeper understanding of the activities occurring in recreation areas and, critically, their potential to affect wildlife and/or sensitive habitats. We found that including documented trails, undocumented trails, and linear features was paramount to understanding the recreational footprint.”
Friends of Kananaskis Country co-chair and communications director Derek Ryder, who spends much of his time building and maintaining trails in the area, said there is no doubt recommendations to decommission and remediate trails are coming.
However, he stresses that can’t be done without improving the overall trail network and knowing what drives trail-based recreation in certain areas.
“There will be decommissioning but there will be improvements to what people actually want. You cannot do one without the other,” said Ryder.
Friends of Kananaskis Country volunteers spend much of their time building, repairing and remediating trails and know all too well humans are creatures of habit and will return to the trails they know, unless offered something better somewhere else.
The study, which runs until mid-October, comes shortly after an earlier study conducted by the U of A in the Canmore area looking at the impacts of trail-based recreation on wary wildlife.
Surveying for that study is completed and also used information about the movement of wildlife from GPS collars and remote cameras, especially grizzly bears and wolves.
Research collected from both studies will marry knowledge of biological and social sciences to provide a more fulsome understanding of how to best manage recreation and wildlife in the region, said Halpenny.
People who recreate in the upper reaches of Kananaskis are encouraged to participate in the survey, which can also be accessed online at https://survey.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_0k8PH93DaCMQI86?Q_CHL=qr.
Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Rocky Mountain Outlook