Watching Wildlife
By Adena Cook

By BlueRibbon Coalition Public Lands Director - Adena Cook

Most outdoor recreation surveys count wildlife and bird watching as a popular activity.  Outdoor Recreation in America 2001 reports that not only is outdoor recreation increasing, but that the sharpest climbs in reported participation were in wildlife viewing, hiking, running/jogging and motor boating. 

Wildlife viewing is generally considered to be a non-consumptive type of recreation, categorized together with hiking and other non-motorized activities.  Conversely, motorized recreation such as four wheel driving, ATV riding, and snowmobiling are generally categorized as consumptive (I have not yet researched why this is so).   

Wildlife viewing generally promoted as a part of eco-friendly tourism.  Recreation Roundtable reports that among people who consider themselves to be active and sympathetic environmentalists, 83% enjoy watching wildlife. 

Green groups and green leaning park and public land managers tout wildlife viewing as an “appreciative” activity.  Apparently, they don’t think that motorized recreationists can appreciate viewing wildlife.  You and I know that’s wrong.  I, and everyone I know who enjoys the outdoors, enjoys and appreciates watching wildlife regardless of our mode of transportation. 

However, I don’t consider wildlife viewing to be non-consumptive.  Perhaps I have been sensitized by biologists hammering on me (as a motorized recreationist) for impacting wildlife habitat effectiveness by just putting along on a trail.  

Having hiked more than a few miles over the years as well as ridden, I’ve observed that if I see a critter, it is interrupted from its activity whether I’m walking or riding.  It’s disturbed.  Its habitat effectiveness is diminished.  That’s consumptive, and the mode of transportation is not relevant.  In fact, if I can move through it’s habitat more quickly by riding, it more quickly resumes its activity than if I were walking.  The point is not which mode of transport disturbs wildlife more, but that all does to some degree – and that wildlife viewing is consumptive. 

Several years ago, I was walking adjacent to a fishing stream in the sagebrush working my way from hole to hole.  I was accompanied by my faithful Aussie, Tessie.  Is walking with your dog considered consumptive?  It sure should be.  She poked her nose under a big clump of sage and out popped this tiny creature with a bleat.  It was no bigger than a rabbit.  Before I even knew what it was, I called her back (thankfully she was very obedient) and beat the hell out of there.  I realized it was a nearly newborn fawn, and I didn’t feel very good about disturbing it. 

Last winter, while snowmobiling down a groomed trail next to a creek, I spotted about six deer across the creek half hidden in the willows.  I challenged myself to sneak by without disturbing them.  I maintained an even speed and motored on by without pausing.  A couple raised their heads, but they did not move.  

Which wildlife-viewing encounter was more consumptive?  How can green groups and eco-tourist promoters in good conscience encourage this activity – wildlife viewing - without acknowledging its impact to wildlife habitat effectiveness?

Wildlife viewing and wildlife appreciation has a dark side.   

Ever since wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone Park, green groups and Park officials have been promoting the wolves as a tourist attraction.  Come to Yellowstone Park! Come see the wolves! Tourists who have seen a wolf cross the road are reportedly enthralled.

Their rapture would turn to horror if they had encountered a scene reported by Jerry Wilson from Jackson, Wyoming.  He and his wife were snowmobiling on the trail up the Gros Ventre River to Goosewing Ranch where the Wyoming Game and Fish maintains an elk feed ground. 

Jerry reports, “My wife and I went snow machining up the Gros Ventre last Friday March 15. Saw 4 wolves run across the road in front of us just east of the Red Rock ranch. Stopped and talked to two volunteers from federal fish and wildlife service, one from Maine and one from North Dakota. Noticed elk tracks everywhere. (very unusual) Asked how many wolves were here? “About 13” How many elk are they killing? “Three or more a night” (not counting pregnant cows aborting because of being run and stressed.)  Continued up the road, appalled by the amount of running elk tracks everywhere. (They have been conditioned for years to stay on the feed grounds) Stopped at the Goose Wing feed grounds. Pile of about 20 to 30 dead elk (cows and calves) by the road pulled there by elk feeders. Some had small amounts of flesh eaten (10 to 15) pounds from hindquarters, left to die….Others caught by nose. Nose, lips and tongue eaten off and left to die…Wounded and stressed elk laying away from herd, unable to get up. (4 or more) Threw up---went home---haven’t slept since.” 

Green groups need to take responsibility for this.  They’re responsible for transplanting wolves to Yellowstone where the critters have flourished and expanded.  They have to acknowledge their hypocrisy when they blame motorized recreationists for impacts on wildlife while they encourage wildlife viewing among their ranks.  They have to face up to the fact that the outdoors is not a zoo and wildlife is not there for eco-tourists to gawk at.  And they must face the fact that when they introduce voracious predators into an ecosystem, the results are not eco-pretty. 

Adena Cook was Public Lands Director for the BlueRibbon Coalition, she is now retired and Bill Dart is now in that position. The Coalition represents a broad range of recreational interests and can be reached at (800) BLUERIB or on the web at