Wildlife And Trails Primer - Part E. The importance of streamside areas

Planning Trails with Wildlife in Mind

By understanding the relative quality of riparian areas, it may be possible to find places within the riparian zone for trails that will have less impact on wildlife.

by American Trails Staff

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

Riparian areas play a disproportionately large role in maintaining biodiversity, especially in Colorado and other western states. The hydrology and vegetation of riparian areas— usually starkly contrasting with surrounding habitats— create very high biological diversity. (The term riparian refers to the area associated with streams and other bodies of water.)

For example, of the 627 vertebrate species listed in the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s “Latilong” data base as occurring in the state (including mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians), 458 species (73 percent) use riparian, stream, lake, or marsh habitat types for at least some part of the year. More than 80 percent of Colorado breeding birds are dependent on riparian areas.

Not all riparian areas are high in habitat quality. Because they are attractive to people, frequently riparian areas have seen many human uses and are degraded. Trails projects can be catalysts for restoring such areas.

Because they help concentrate human use and thereby reduce trampling, trails can reduce the impacts of people on riparian areas.

By understanding the relative quality of riparian areas, it may be possible to find places within the riparian zone for trails that will have less impact on wildlife.
Plants in riparian soils are especially vulnerable to trampling because compacting soils damages and limits roots, reduces aeration, decreases soil water, and destroys soil structure.

Where horses, pedestrians, and others cross streams, erosion can result which may affect fish habitat. Also if rest rooms are not available, the impacts of human waste may be considerable.

Fishing is a type of managed recreation that has direct impacts on habitat, as well as fish. Of special concern are the extensive social trails often created along banks by anglers, sometimes in sensitive riparian areas.

photo credit: Jack Seeds, Unsplash

Rules of Thumb

E.1 Regional balance.
Looking across the landscape or region, find a balance between the riparian areas that have trails and those devoted to wildlife conservation.

E.2 Habitat restoration.
Use the process of building trails as a catalyst to restore degraded stream corridors.

E.3 Removing grazing.
Whenever possible, use a trail as a catalyst to restrict cattle and other stock from good quality riparian areas.

E.4 Strategic entries into riparian zone.
For both habitat and maintenance reasons, it is better to run a trail just outside the riparian area (perhaps on a topographic bench) and bring it in at strategic places, than to keep it continuously close to a riparian area.

E.5 Not encircling ponds.
In routing a trail near a pond or lake, don’t run it completely around the body of water. Instead, leave some shoreline without a trail to allow water birds the option of moving away from people to the far side of the pond.

E.6 Beaver ponds as attractions.
Occasionally taking a trail to beaver ponds may provide an opportunity for trail users to see wildlife habitat close at hand. Beaver are not as likely to be disturbed by recreationists as other wildlife, but be careful of sensitive species that also use beaver ponds.

E.7 Stream crossings.
Minimize the number of times a trail crosses a stream. However, stream crossings may be needed to avoid critical habitat areas.

E.8 Stream confluences.
Avoid crossings where two or more streams come together. These are particularly important nodes for wildlife.

E.9 Stream buffers.
To maintain natural processes along a stream corridor, maintain an interior or upland buffer on both sides of a stream, which is wide enough to control overland flows from the surrounding landscape, provide a conduit for upland species, and offer suitable habitat for floodplain species displaced by beaver flooding or channel migration.

E.10 Poor riparian habitat.
In riparian areas of variable habitat quality, route a trail closer to a stream where habitat quality is poorer.

E.11 Approaching streams.
Give trail users the opportunity to be near water or they will find ways them- selves, likely with greater overall impact than if a trail is provided.

E.12 Wider conservation.
Use public support of trails to protect riparian corridors.

E.13 Restoring wetlands.
Restore wetlands near a trail to expand cover, food, and nesting opportunities.

Further Reading

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

Binford and Buchenau, “Riparian Greenways and Water Resources,” in Smith, D. and P. Hellmund, 1993. Ecology of Greenways.University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minn., pp. 69-104.

Published September 2018

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