Tribes with treaty-reserved rights to hunt and gather have increasing concerns about the effects of outdoor recreation on public lands.

A recent report developed jointly between the Tulalip Tribes’ Treaty Rights Office and Wildlife Program reviewed existing research on the effects of recreational activity on wildlife. The report also considers the potential implications to treaty tribes and highlights the experiences of some Tulalip tribal hunters who have found it harder to access traditional hunting lands.

Jason Gobin, the tribes’ director of fish and wildlife, grew up hunting for elk and black bear in the Snoqualmie Valley. The roads have been paved since, improving public access to the land where tribal members have a treaty-protected right to hunt and gather. He hasn’t hunted there since the 1990s.

“This is an example of an area that just basically got overrun, and now nobody goes up here and really hunts anymore,” Gobin said. “It’s become harder and harder to find areas where you can truly hunt.”

More recently, tribal hunter Amanda Shelton found that her usual elk hunting grounds became too crowded with mushroom pickers, hikers and mountain bikers. She tried hunting on different days and traveling farther into the backcountry before deciding she would need to move to a less disturbed area.

The Tulalip Tribes’ report is part of an effort to learn more about how this “recreation boom” will affect public, state and federal lands in western Washington, as well as the exercise of tribal treaty rights.

The report looks specifically at impacts on elk, deer, black bears, mountain goats and birds.

Research points to consequences from human interaction that include both direct and indirect impacts to wildlife and their habitat. Even when there are no obvious changes in behavior, studies found that wildlife suffer psychological stress, which puts them at greater risk of disease and lowered reproduction rates, among other effects.

A 1980s study in the resort town of Vail, Colorado, found that 30 percent of elk calves died when their mothers were disturbed by hikers an average of seven times. If each cow elk was bothered 10 times during calving, all their calves would die.

Another study found that wildlife not only will avoid trails where dogs wander off leash, but the presence of leashed dogs on trails also can create a “dead zone” by decreasing the density of fox, bobcat and prairie dog burrows and dens.

In western Washington, the increased demand for outdoor recreation has led to the expansion of parking lots, public access to waterways, new trails and toilets, but little in the way of studies to assess the cumulative environmental impacts and enforcement needed for the intensifying recreation.

“It is improbable that Tribal signatories to the treaty in 1855 could ever have imagined the widespread conversion of lands, habitat loss, and diminishment of fish and wildlife populations that we see across Western Washington today,” according to the Tulalip report.

A better understanding of these impacts will help tribes advocate for the protection and recovery of treaty resources and the habitat that supports them, and help guide needed research.

“As co-managers of natural resources with the state of Washington, we have the right to a seat at the table when recreation management decisions are made and a voice in how they are implemented,” said Lorraine Loomis, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “Our cultures and treaty rights depend on the long-term health of these lands and resources.”

Photo: Amanda Shelton