Aah, the great outdoors. We like to bike in it, hike in it, take leisurely strolls in it and set up our picnic blankets in it. And why not? Being out in nature is officially good for our brains. But with more and more people crisscrossing the ever-shrinking wilderness in search of their nature 'fix', somewhere along the way our human trails are likely to overlap with those of a wolf, a cougar or a bear. Former park ranger George Mercer looks at what happens when humans and wild animals keep crossing paths. 

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I came across this grizzly bear track while working in the Rocky Mountains and made an imprint alongside it with my hiking boot – I needed an image that would convey the message that people and wildlife often share the same trails.  You could just as easily substitute my boot imprint with the tread of a running shoe or a mountain bike tyre – both trail running and riding are becoming increasingly popular in this part of the world. 

“So does this mean we should all stay out of the wilderness? No. It simply means we could all do with a little more awareness and knowledge about the trails we use and the potential for a path-crossing encounter”

While there are many 'official' trails formally developed for our activities, many have had no formal planning or design. In some cases, these are what I like to call 'wild trails' – trails that form an important part of a wildlife habitat and are used by various animals to get around, forage and hunt. So what happens when these 'wild trails' are appropriated by humans? The effects on local wildlife are difficult to assess, but not impossible to predict. 

Wariness and vigilance are two traits that help animals survive by allowing them to recognize and respond to potential threats before they're in imminent danger. When the perceived threat is of the human kind, there's a good chance the animal will retreat before the human is even aware of its presence. A single close encounter probably won't have a lasting effect ... but once humans begin to move through an area frequently, many animals may simply choose to avoid it. Of course, some animals could react in the opposite way, and in extreme cases, could become conditioned or habituated to human presence – with potentially serious consequences.

How an animal reacts depends on a number of factors, including the species involved, the individual animal itself and its previous experiences, as well the specific circumstances at the time of the encounter. A hungry female grizzly that's just emerged from a winter spent underground with her cubs (that now depend on her for food and security) may respond quite differently than a lone bear fattened up by feasting on berries in late summer. Similarly, a wary wolf that's not used to seeing humans will probably not react the same way as a wolf that frequently encounters people.

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Image credit: Michael Bentley

So does this mean we should all stay out of the wilderness? No. It simply means we could all do with a little more awareness and knowledge about the trails we use and the potential for a path-crossing encounter. 'Wild trails' in particular should be avoided – in most cases, using them reduces the already limited habitat species have available for doing the things they need to do to survive. In contrast, official trails are designed with wildlife in mind, they're clearly signposted and their layout has been carefully planned to reduce the potential for conflict and ensure humans and wildlife can happily coexist.

So, the next time you're venturing out into the wilderness, take the path most travelled ... and leave the wilder paths to the wildlife.