Recreation meets wildlife in Alaska: The ecological impact of cruise ships and off-roading

Lowering ship speed reduces encounter distances with humpback whales and 
off-road vehicles alter moose distribution and habitats

This month in ecological science, researchers find that cruise ships travelling at faster speeds have closer encounters with humpback whales in Alaskan waterways and ecologists assess the damage to wildlife from off-road vehicles in rural Alaska. These articles are available online or published in the latest issues of the Ecological Society of America’s (ESA) journals. In addition, experts from ESA’s Rapid Response Team are available to discuss changes to the western North American landscape and environment.

Humpback whales and cruise ship encounters

Cruise ships are a popular form of leisure travel and their routes frequently overlap with whale hotspots in the Caribbean, Hawaii, South Pacific Islands, Mediterranean, Baja California and Alaska. As the number of large ships increases in oceans and waterways, the risk of collisions with whales rises as well. In a pre-print article published online in Ecological Applications, Scott Gende from the National Park Service in Juneau and colleagues used data collected by shipboard observers for four years in Alaska, including Glacier Bay National Park, to assess how often and how close ships encounter whales, and whether ship speed influences the distance between ships and whales. They found that, when it comes to areas in which cruise ships cannot avoid whale hotspots, lowering the ship’s speed significantly reduced the risk of whales encountering ships at close distances. Read more

Off-roading alters wildlife habitat use

In the last four decades, the use of off-highway vehicles, such as four-wheelers and snowmachines, on public lands across the U.S. has increased seven-fold. The ecological impact extends beyond the direct risk of wildlife-vehicle collisions. In this case, Colin Shanley from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and Sanjay Pyare from the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, found that the presence of off-road vehicles on rural roads displaced moose between 500 meters and more than 1000 meters from the road. Therefore, even a dirt road used mainly for recreation—while it physically takes up only a small portion of land—has a much broader impact on nearby wildlife and its habitat. As the researchers mentioned in the open-access study published online in Ecosphere, the disturbances to moose are at least partially due to the noise produced by the vehicles, as well as the moose associating them with hunters. Read more

Other ESA studies published this month on western North America include:

“Climate variability and spruce beetle (Dendroctonus rufipennis) outbreaks in south-central and southwest Alaska” by Rosemary Sherriff from Humboldt State University and colleagues in Ecology (pre-print). Researchers used tree-ring data from AD 1601-2007 to examine the occurrence of and climatic influences on spruce beetle (Dendroctonus rufipennis) outbreaks in south-central and southwest Alaska and found evidence of regional-scale outbreaks dating from the mid-1700s, related to climate variability.Read more

“Do mountain pine beetle outbreaks change the probability of active crown fire in lodgepole pine forests?” by Martin Simard from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and colleagues in Ecological Monographs. Conventional wisdom about the effects of the mountain pine beetle (MPB) on forest fires across western North America has often assumed that the beetle-induced death of trees has led to an increase in rapidly spreading forest fires. However, researchers found that MPBs may actually decrease the likelihood of crown fires in Greater Yellowstone. Read more

The following scientists from ESA’s Rapid Response Team are available to discuss changes to the western North American landscape and environment:

Monica TurnerMonica Turner

University of Wisconsin, Madison; co-author on Simard paper (listed above)

Turner conducted long-term studies of the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park that explored the effects of wildfire on patterns of post-fire vegetation and ecosystem processes (especially carbon and nitrogen dynamics). Currently, her research focuses on the interactions of fire, bark beetles and harvest in western forests. Read more


Lisa GraumlichLisa Graumlich

Dean, University of Washington College of the Environment

Graumlich is pursuing her career-long goal of better understanding the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, especially in mountains of western North America. She is particularly interested in adaptation strategies that speak to the issue of how parks and protected areas adapt to rapid climate change. Read more


Jason NeffJason Neff

University of Colorado, Boulder

Neff studies the cycling of carbon and nutrients in ecosystems. He currently works in Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service lands in the southwestern U.S., focusing on land use and climate impacts on ecosystems. Read more


Sharon CollingeSharon Collinge

University of Colorado, Boulder

Collinge’s research is based in grassland ecosystems of the American West and centers on how land use changes affect the survival and persistence of native plants and animals.  She studies how modifying the land influences infectious diseases, such as the impacts of urbanization on plague outbreaks in prairie dogs. Read more


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