How does mountain biking affect wildlife in the Elk Valley?

Photo by Douglas Noblet / Wild Air Photography

Fernie, in British Columbia’s Elk Valley, might be best known as a ski town, but when the snow melts and the bears wake up, residents and visitors alike flock to the city’s world-class network of mountain biking and hiking trails.

According to the Fernie Trails Alliance, this network contains over 300 km of trails — but it’s not just humans who use them. Located as it is in the middle of a critical wildlife corridor, and adjacent to many wild and protected areas, wildlife abounds in the Elk Valley. And, as local wildlife scientist Dr Clayton Lamb discovered, many of those animals make good use of Fernie’s trail network to get around.

For the last three years, Clayton has been researching how mountain biking affects wildlife in the Elk Valley. He setup 29 motion-activated cameras on different types of trails — roads, mountain bike trails and wildlife trails — to compare the intensity of animal activity at different times of day, and to see whether wildlife responded differently to hikers, bikers and motorized users. 

His cameras collected 1.7 million photos, resulting in 200,000 individual detections, and, in mid-June, he shared some of his preliminary findings with the public at Wildsight’s Fernie Wild Spaces event. 

While Clayton cautions that more analysis is needed, his research so far has found that wildlife, particularly Elk and Whitetail deer, do seem to change the way they use Fernie’s trails in response to recreationists. Many species appeared to prefer roads and wildlife trails, but most were still observed on bike trails — at times in very close proximity to bikers. There was some evidence to suggest animals generally responded most negatively to motorized trail users, with fewer negative responses to hikers and bikers.

Ultimately however, responses varied greatly between different species and recreation types, presenting a challenge for landscape managers looking to improve outcomes for both people and wildlife. 

As Clayton pointed out, more research is needed, and local recreation and tourism groups are leading the charge to collect good information about human-wildlife interactions, which will help inform good decisions in the future.

The Elk River Alliance’s Evgeni Matveev also spoke at the Fernie Wild Spaces event, providing valuable information about Whirling Disease, and how we can help prevent it from spreading into the Elk River watershed. In the following video, Evgeni’s talk can be viewed from 0:00-12:50, with Clayton’s beginning shortly after.