When skiing today I had a close encounter with a squirrel. It crossed the piste just a few meters ahead of me. Surprisingly enough, this has never happened to me before. But even though it was just a squirrel, it made me realise something important. The winter outdoors and the backcountry is still a home to rich communities of wildlife.
Winter is a tough time for wildlife. And human-wildlife encounters put extra pressure on the animals. This squirrel encounter has motivated me to write this blog post. Here are 7 quick tips for your next responsible skiing adventure.
Wildlife in Winter
But first things first! Why is it so important to be conscious about wildlife especially in winter?
For most animals winter is a critical time as they struggle for survival. Resources are scarce and temperatures are low. To save energy and conserve heat during extreme conditions, animals go into a ‘saving mode’. They move as little as possible and spend a lot of time hidden in sheltered areas. So even when you get close to them, most of the time you will not even spot them.
In these extreme circumstances, animals are very vulnerable to any kind of stress. When we startle these animals in their hideout, we trigger a stress response. The most obvious response to stress (but not the only one) is escape. Most wildlife reacts to humans like they would react to a predator: They flee and run off in panic. This requires a lot of energy.
The higher energy use weakens the animal and makes it an easy prey for other wildlife. In extreme cases the animal might even die out of exhaustion.
But stress does not only result in escape. It also triggers other body reactions that in the long-term weaken the animal. Long periods of stress reduce their fitness. And animals are in general more vulnerable to risks such as predation or diseases.
The effect of backcountry skiing on wildlife
So while we enjoy our time outdoors in the backcountry, we often forget that the wildlife around us may struggle for survival. And on top of that, we often even contribute to it.
In the Alps, but also elsewhere, outdoor sports are very popular and a big part of the local culture. As a result increasing numbers of people explore the outdoors. As backcountry skiing is gaining on popularity, remote areas become increasingly busy also during winter. With huge consequences for wildlife like black grouse, ptarmigan, chamois, ibex and deer, just to name a few!
The problem is that even rather low levels of disturbance can trigger a stress response in wildlife. Problematic are especially activities that are hard to predict for the animals. Because when disturbances are unpredictable, wildlife can’t get used to them. Backcountry skiing and snowboarding are typical examples for such activities.
So what does that mean for us? Of course never going outside into nature is not an option. But there are a few things we can do to reduce our negative impact on wildlife when backcountry skiing.
Here are 7 tips that help you enjoy nature in winter in a more responsible way:
1. Respect Non-Access Areas
What are non-access areas?
Non-access areas are areas designed to protect certain species and their key habitats. They are designed to minimize human access to these areas. Non-access areas are usually marked on maps and indicated by signs in the field.
Outdoor activities such as backcountry skiing are hard to predict for wildlife. People move freely without sticking to any trails. And especially when descending, they move fast. To find the best snow conditions, people disperse over vast areas. And after fresh snowfall whole mountain slopes become heavily ridden in only a few hours of time.
This puts an enormous pressure on wildlife. To reduce the pressure exerted by backcountry skiing and other outdoor sports, we need clear signs and information on non-access areas. And of course we must respect them. That way we can protect important key habitats.
2. Stick to the Trail
As mentioned earlier, animals get used to human presence easier when they can predict it. That’s why animals get used to humans on trails and learn to avoid them. So sticking to the trail while backcountry skiing helps wildlife to avoid you.
Trails are an important element to help confining visitor traffic to certain areas. This makes it an effective visitor management practice that aims at giving animals and various plants a space to thrive.
3. Avoid Twilight
Twilight is the time of the day when most wildlife is very active and searching for food. During this time animals are particularly vulnerable to disturbances. Reducing the overlap between human and animal activities helps to reduce pressure on wildlife. Sticking to certain times also means that we are more predictable; hence easier to avoid.
Habituation of wildlife in skiing resorts:
Sticking to certain times makes us predictable. Take skiing resorts for instance. You would think that the effect of large resorts is really bad for wildlife. Large crowds of people and noise are stressful for many animals.
That is correct. However, skiing resorts are only busy during their opening hours, so from around 8.30 am to 5pm. Plus a few hours in the evening when pistes are groomed. But these activities are very predictable and animals can get habituated quite easily.
Studies with black grouse show for instance that the male birds avoid the resort during the day. Yet in the early morning they use the terraces of the huts as lekking arena .
4. Avoid forest edges and snow-free patches
Many species, such as fox, deer and grouse depend on forest edges for feeding. Thus, the forest edge is a key habitat that many animals depend on.
Snow-free patches play a similar role. They are important grazing areas for animals such as ibex and chamois.
By avoiding preferred winter feeding grounds during our backcountry skiing adventures, we reduce stress on wildlife.
What makes forest edges special?
From an ecological point of view, edges are areas where two or more landscape types come together. A typical example in the Alps is the area where the forest meets the alpine meadow. In these areas light-, soil- and temperature conditions change within a small distance. As a result the forest edge usually has a high biodiversity. The diverse conditions result in a unique mixture of plants and an attractive habitat for many animals.
5. Keep distance to wildlife
Spotting wildlife during winter is rare. If you are still lucky enough to spot some, make sure to keep your distance.
Human-animal encounters trigger a stress response in the animal usually resulting in fleeing. However, sometimes the terrain characteristics prevent an escape. And without a way out, the animal might freeze instead of running off.
People often misinterpret this behaviour as habituation. Yet, most of the times, the animal will still experience high levels of stress.
6. Keep your Dog on a Leash
When we are in nature, anytime of the year, we should reduce activities that could disturb wildlife. That’s why keeping your dog on a leash is important. No matter how well behaved your dog is, a free-roaming dog still is a huge stress factor. This is especially true in areas with a high abundance of wildlife such as forest areas.
7. Avoid noise in the backcountry
Loud noises are stressful to wildlife. Especially in the backcountry, where animals are not used to human-induced noise. Avoid playing music and establish a good communication with your group of friends. That way you can avoid unnecessary yelling when skiing in the backcountry.
Long-term effects of backcountry skiing: Seeing the bigger picture
Enjoying the winter wonderland when skiing in the backcountry often makes us forget about the wildlife living there. Be considerate, use your common sense and judgement, but most importantly, stay safe.
With these 7 tips you can act more responsibly when skiing in sensitive areas. By following them you contribute to the survival of individual animals. But you also contribute to maintaining an intact ecosystem and a healthy environment.
The long-term effects of on-going disturbances and related stress are complex. And the exact results are hard to foresee. But disturbances do not only affect single individuals. In the long-term the effects of continuous stress spread to the whole population. And this in turn affects the whole ecosystem.
Ongoing stress weakens the animal and reduces the overall fitness of the population. One of the main reasons for this is that animals will give up part of their preferred habitat in favor of less suitable but safer areas. This means that in the long-term human interference reduces habitat suitability. And this in turn means that increasing human presence in the backcountry contributes to the loss of suitable habitats.
As a consequence population sizes decrease and in some areas certain species completely disappear. This is the start of a negative spiral where the disappearance of one species affects other species eventually resulting in the decline of local biodiversity and habitat quality. With lower biodiversity ecosystems are less resilient and more vulnerable to shocks.
It may seem like a local issue at first sight. But if we keep losing valuable nature, this has far-reaching consequences not only for wildlife but also for ourselves. Therefore, respecting nature should be an integral part of outdoor sports.
Act responsible and share your knowledge!
The more we talk about the environment, the more people learn about it. If we want to keep enjoying the outdoors, we have to make sure that it remains enjoyable.
Education and learning about the environment are important steps towards taking more sustainable actions. But learning about the environment isn’t always easy.
We also wrote about the challenges of environmental information access and how to improve environmental communication for public awareness. So lets make learning about the environmental easier by talking about it and spreading the word.
References and further reading:
 Thiel, D., Jenni‐Eiermann, S., Braunisch, V., Palme, R. and Jenni, L., 2008. Ski tourism affects habitat use and evokes a physiological stress response in capercaillie Tetrao urogallus: a new methodological approach. Journal of applied ecology, 45(3), pp.845-853.
 Arlettaz, R., Patthey, P. and Braunisch, V., 2013. Impacts of outdoor winter recreation on alpine wildlife and mitigation approaches: a case study of the Black Grouse. The Impacts of Skiing and Related Winter Recreational Activities on Mountain Environments (eds C. Rixen & A. Rolando), S, pp.137-154.
 Hill, W. and Pickering, C.M., 2009. Evaluation of impacts and methods for the assessment of walking tracks in protected areas. Cooperative Research Centre for Sustainable Tourism.