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Human Impacts on Sensitive Ecosystems

It is essential to recognize the impact of human activities on Maplewood Flats ecosystems, especially considering the increase in site visitation each year.
Human Impacts on Sensitive Ecosystems
Human Impacts on Sensitive Ecosystems such as the mudflats at Maplewood Flats

Maplewood Flats is the only conservation area along Burrard Inlet, and the Wild Bird Trust of BC (WBT) is committed to ecological protection and habitat restoration. Birds and wildlife rely on the forested trails, wetlands and marshes, mudflats, and inlet for critical habitat and foraging requirements. 

It is essential to recognize the impact of human activities on Maplewood Flats ecosystems, especially considering the increase in site visitation each year. Habitat experts at the WBTestimate that a record-breaking 80,000 people visited Maplewood Flats in 2020. Given the ongoing global pandemic, outdoor spaces continue to be popular spaces for people to safely visit. 

Increased visitation translates to greater ecological stress on wildlife and habitats. First and foremost, Maplewood Flats is a conservation area and wild bird sanctuary. To mitigate the influence of human disturbance to Maplewood Flats, visitors are expected to comply with site-use policies, including: 

  1. No jogging and no bicycles on site
  2. Dogs must be kept on leash, and only on the East side of the Conservation Area (i.e. no dogs on/beyond the bridge)
  3. No foot access to the beach and mudflats 
  4. Don’t feed the wildlife

These policies are informed by habitat research and exist to minimize the human impact on sensitive ecosystems. Global conservation research provides evidence-rooted best practices that strive to minimize the negative impacts of human activities.

Human disturbances

A researcher in California reviewed existing studies on human disturbances on waterbirds in the Bay Area. They calculated that 57% of the reviewed studies reported birds taking flight in response to a human disturbance. Taking flight, or “flushing”, is one significant avian response to disturbance, but human activities also disrupt birds’ foraging efforts, physical fitness, roosting patterns, and reproductive success outcomes. Some shorebirds, for instance, perceive humans as predators and may spend their time scanning for humans as a defense mechanism, at the expense of their feeding efforts. Humans disturb birds through a variety of activities, including walking, running, bicycling, boating, driving, flying, hunting, fishing, and dog walking.

Walk, don’t run

In Australia, a research team studied the differences in bird responses to walking and jogging. Eight out of the 10 bird species studied fled faster or displayed more intense escape responses to jogger over walkers. The authors of the study concluded that joggers appear more intense in the birds’ field of view than walkers, are louder, and cause escape responses at greater distances. The effect of bicycles would likely have an even greater effect on bird behaviour. 

Who let the dogs out?

Wildlife researchers frequently recommend leashing dogs to improve conservation outcomes. However, in areas where leashing is required, the rule is often disregarded. Student researchers from UBC studying marine birds along the Kitsilano shoreline observed that 57.8% of dogs at parks with a leash-mandatory rule were off leash, violating the leash bylaw.

Research conducted on the seashores of England studied Kentish Plovers, a small shorebird species. The researcher identified that birds were disturbed 80% of the time by off-leash dogs compared to 12.9% of the time when only humans were near. Australian researchers demonstrated that dog-walking in woodland ecosystems led to a 35% reduction in bird diversity and 41% reduction in abundance.

Mudflat integrity

Research from the Jeram mudflats of Malaysia found that upon human disturbance, 36% of birds stopped feeding and flew away, 23% stopped feeding and ran away, 22% stopped feeding and stayed alert and 19% continued feeding. Other research documents the detrimental impacts of foot traffic on mudflat ecosystem functionality, most notably how trampling mudflats disturbs intricate processes and biological interactions for microalgae, seagrasses, etc.  

An additional ecological benefit of having a policy for no foot access to the mudflats is that a spatial barrier, or “set-back distance”, is created between human disturbances and waterbirds, potentially lessening the human impacts on sensitive wildlife species.

Don’t feed the wildlife

People feed birds in urban settings for a variety of reasons—for simple enjoyment, to attempt to support birds, to get physically closer to birds, etc. But feeding wild birds can actually harm them in some cases. A Florida-based research team summarized the harmful implications of feeding waterbirds: birds may experience behavioural problems and become aggressive, malnutrition if they are fed foods with low nutritional value, injuries if they ingest non-food items or non-digestible objects, disease spread, and entanglement in fishing lines. Additionally, feeding birds and wildlife have serious consequences in terms of habituation to humans. Encouraging habituation through hand-feeding, or leaving piles of seeds along trails is taken very  seriously because Maplewood Flats is a “wild”-life conservation area, not a petting zoo. 

Site-use policies at Maplewood Flats strive to reflect this research and strengthen conservation outcomes for birds and wildlife, while simultaneously accommodating birders, nature enthusiasts, and curious visitors. In 2021, the Wild Bird Trust of BC is prioritizing updating on-site signage to uplift and enhance this messaging.

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