Wildlife And Trails Primer - Part D. Habitat quality varies

Planning Trails with Wildlife in Mind

Looking at resources from a regional or landscape-wide perspective helps identify where trails should go and which areas should be conserved for wildlife.

by American Trails Staff

Identifying specific habitat types helps enrich the trail experience while reducing impacts

Landscape ecology provides many useful tools for understanding and documenting the landscapes through which trails pass. By identifying a landscape’s patches (such as stands of trees), corridors (e.g., a stream), and surrounding matrix (e.g., grasslands), it may be easier to find the best alignment for a trail, one that fits the landscape.

Key Concepts

An important consideration in aligning a trail is the relative resiliency of habitats that might be crossed.

Not surprisingly, types of habitat vary widely in the number and kinds of wildlife using them. (Frequently habitat type is used as a surrogate for wildlife use because vegetation is easier to observe and map.)

For example, the 33 habitat types included in the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s “Latilong” data base potentially have a range from 35 species for tundra to 302 for lowland riparian areas.

The top two ranking habitat types, in terms of overall numbers of species and the most threatened or endangered species, are riparian, which illustrates why there is so much interest in conserving such areas found near water.

None of this is to suggest the number of species is the only or best measure of a habitat’s value to wildlife, although some habitats are used by more species of wildlife than others. Tundra, for example, because of its severe climate, has a low diversity of wildlife species. Yet tundra plays a vital role in the lives of species that are important components of Colorado’s biodiversity.

Lodgepole pine forests tend to have a moderate to low diversity of plants and animals. Because typically they are dense forests, recreationists may not be seen or heard by wildlife from as great a distance as open areas.

Rules of Thumb

D.1 Variety of experience.
Route a trail through varied habitat types to enrich user experiences, but avoid small patches of species-rich habitats.

D.2 Potential vs. actual species.
Determine which species of interest actually occur in the area you are studying. Wildlife data bases sometimes list species that potentially occur within a given habitat type; not all of these species may actually be found there.

D.3 Screening.
Consider the physical characteristics of habitat types when routing a trail. For example, trail users may be screened in some forest types.

D.4 Habitat variability.
Even within a single type of habitat, some elements may be of greater importance to wildlife than others. For instance, shrubby thickets of snowberry or American plum within riparian habitat provide very important cover and food for birds and small mammals.

Use of habitats by wildlife varies widely. The number of wildlife species potentially found in the various types of habitat listed in the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s “Latilong” data base varies widely. This ranking shows why riparian areas are so significant to Colorado’s wildlife. Note: The data base includes mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, but not fish. (Dave Weber, Colorado Division of Wildlife, 1998.)


Further Reading

[Older publications may be available from libraries and used booksellers. Titles with links may still be in print.]

Kruger, Frances Alley; John Fielder; and Carron A. Meaney, Denver Museum 1995. Explore Colorado: From Plains to Peaks.Westcliffe Publishers, Englewood, Colorado.

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