Tourism Impacts on National Park Wildlife
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National parks have a lot to offer, from economic revenue to memorable visitor excursions. A glimpse into the natural habitats of our most beloved species is something most people are willing to pay extra.
However, as eco-tourism rises, the risks to national park wildlife are also high. Even low-traffic parks like Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park have proved that minor activity has adverse impacts on species.
This article will examine three federally-protected parks in the United States and how tourism negatively affects national park wildlife.
Case Study: Everglades National Park
It’s an unwritten rule to take an airboat ride while vacationing in South Florida. Whether a bucket list item or an annual fishing trip tradition, tourists flock to Everglades National Park.
The Everglades alone contributed $58.7 million in visitor spending in 2019, helping sustain 803 jobs. Yet, while eco-tourism benefits Florida’s economy, it’s not always conducive to public safety or wildlife conservation.
Although considered a famous eco-amusement park ride, airboat tours receive criticism for their lack of safety in recent years. In fact, few safety and drug-free operative compliance requirements regulate the industry as it is. Although Florida passed “Ellie’s Law” in 2018 after a college student was killed in a freak airboat accident, it’s taken a while for its implementation.
Meanwhile, scientists and South Florida ecologists have frequently spoken out about airboats’ ecological impacts on national park wildlife. With their loud, rumbling engine, airboats cause significant disturbances to nesting birds. As they glide over sawgrass and cattails, their engine noises scare off wading birds, leaving eggs vulnerable to predators.
Airboats also glide through natural channels, altering water flow directions and ecosystems. This impact could be potentially dangerous for the Everglades 39 threatened and endangered species, including the Cape Sable seaside sparrow and piping plover.
Instead, scientists often suggest kayaking and canoeing while expanding protected channels and fragile regions from airboat tourism.
Case Study: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
When tourists want to feast their eyes on Hawaii’s unique wildlife, active volcanoes, and lush landscapes, they go to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.
According to the National Park Service (NPS), 1.3 million visitors contributed $117 million to the local economy surrounding Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park in 2021. The spending helped support 1,120 jobs with a total amount of $154 million for the island of Hawai’i.
Nevertheless, Hawaii’s national park wildlife often undergoes pressure from tourism activities. For example, the hawksbill sea turtle populations have steadily declined within the last century, rendering the species critically endangered.
Commercial harvesting was the primary cause for the hawksbill’s disappearance — their shells and scutes were once widely used in jewelry, glass items and other accessories. There was even a time when taxidermied hawksbills could be found in tourist shops.
Thanks to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, hawksbill harvesting has largely ceased. However, it’s considered too little too late, as the hawksbill has struggled to boost its numbers.
Less than 20 female Hawaiian hawksbill sea turtles lay an average of 180 eggs annually, while only one in 1,000 hatchlings survive long enough to reach adulthood.
Tourists must be cautious to avoid building campfires near shoreline nesting grounds during the nesting season. Hawaiian conservation regulations also ask tourists to cover bright flashlight lenses with filters to reduce glare and eliminate food scraps to dissuade predators.
The hawksbill sea turtle isn’t the only national park wildlife impacted by tourism. Several endangered and threatened birds are, too.
The Hawaiian goose is the state bird — also known as the nene — whose status was lowered from endangered to threatened in 2019. Although tourism still poses a danger to the species, conservation management strategies increased the nene population from 30 to 2,800 between 1960 and today.
The nene recovery has inspired many, giving scientists hope for other species to bounce back throughout our national parks. Of course, the nene’s recovery took hard work and effort with stringent rules that respected the species. Limiting human interactions and disturbances was the primary reason recovery worked in the first place.
Case Study: Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is the first and one of the most famous federally-protected landscapes in the U.S., with high economic value. In 2019, nearly 4 million visitors spent $507 million in the communities surrounding Yellowstone, supporting 7,000 local jobs and boosting the local economy at $642 million.
Yet, while Yellowstone’s tourism ensures exciting visitor experiences and employment opportunities, human activity has repeatedly proven that our presence negatively impacts national park wildlife.
During the summer of 2019, the Thermal Area Preservation Program sent crews in to remove 438 hats and 16,404 pieces of pollution from Yellowstone’s hydrothermal areas, including geysers, hot springs, and steam vents. Littering poses a significant risk to wildlife when species ingest trash or plastic.
Human disturbance has also adversely affected specific species, such as bison and the elusive wolverine.
Human-bison conflicts are more common than you’d think, despite Yellowstone requiring a safe 23-meter distance at all times. There were 25 bison encounters between 2000 and 2015, with attacks occurring an average of 3.4 meters apart.
Additionally, tourists put the estimated 10 wolverines in Yellowstone in danger by pushing coyotes into their habitat. Wolverines and coyotes thrive in similar habitats — mountain ranges, dense forests and snowy regions. Skiers in Yellowstone have exploited their habitat and landscape, creating friction and competition for survivability.
Tourists Must Respect National Park Wildlife
When you visit one of the national parks, you must do so responsibly. Remember that you are encroaching on habitat and your presence could pose dire consequences for national park wildlife — particularly endangered species. Research park regulations beforehand to understand what behaviors are appropriate or not. Your actions as a tourist matter for environmental conservation.
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About the author
Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.