Studying recreation in the Yellowstone to Yukon region  - Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative

Studying recreation in the Yellowstone to Yukon region 

How can we do better to protect the places we love to explore, and the wildlife we share space with? 

People are recreating in more places, more often, and going farther and faster than ever before. While recreation is certainly starting to be better studied, a big picture view of our natural spaces is still missing.  

As trails get busier, it is important to make sure people can get outside and have fun while sharing space with wildlife — and other people. Better knowledge means better planning and better experiences in nature.  

Right now, a research project is under way in parts of the Yellowstone to Yukon region to better understand the opportunities and impacts of recreation on the environment.  

Led by researchers at University of Northern British Columbia and Y2Y, this project includes collaboration with provincial governments, land managers, scientists and you.

Our project goals include work to: 

  • Understand where, how and how many people are recreating 
  • See where wildlife habitat and recreation areas overlap
  • Provide information that helps make good decisions for people and wildlife
A person hiking crosses a small stream
Photo: Knut Thomas Meling

Where, how, and how many people recreate 

Recreation provides spectacular opportunities for people to connect with nature, relax, and exercise. Great experiences and memories create lasting bonds and a desire to share wild places with family and friends.   

With more people enjoying nature there is a need for proactive management of access and recreation. Well-managed outdoor recreation will ensure the natural resources we cherish are preserved for generations and that outdoor experiences are enjoyable.  

This work starts with understanding where, when, how and how many people recreate.  

Until now, most recreation research has looked at road and trail densities on the land, but that does not evaluate how busy trails are. A new approach is needed to understand the actual footprint of recreation and how intense trail use is.  

Recreationists, communities, governments, Indigenous Nations, adventure tourism businesses, and conservationists in southeastern British Columbia and western Alberta have identified concerns about the places that they work, live, and play in — including a need for better management and planning for recreation.  

Our research explores different data such as trail counters, social media, smartphone apps, data from recreation hotspots and surveys to learn where people are going, how often they visit and what they like to do.  

Better planning improves recreation  

Knowing where people recreate is an important puzzle piece in improving recreation experiences. Activities include commercial or recreational human-powered ones such as mountain biking, hiking, skiing, as well as motorized, off-highway vehicle recreation and snowmobiling. 

Without careful planning, this growth can unintentionally add pressure to wild places and species, increase tensions across users, and affect the quality of our outdoor experiences. 

Provincial governments in British Columbia and Alberta have identified recreation management as a priority. This research offers a new approach that can be used by land managers to support quality recreation experiences while reducing impacts on wildlife, now and into the future. 

Two grizzly bears sit facing away from the camera along a rocky ridge. The grizzly bear on the right stands and licks the ear of the left grizzly bear that is sitting
Photo: Troy Malish

Where the wildlife are  

Often, the most scenic places for adventures are also great wildlife habitat. Recent research indicates some animals are changing their behavior to avoid people on trails.  

Well-managed outdoor recreation creates space for all, including wildlife. Grizzly bears, cougars, wolverines, bighorn sheep, goats, and native trout use habitat shared with people in the study areas.  

This research will identify places and times of year where recreation might affect these species. This will help inform solutions and recommendations to keep all of us safer. 

Dozens of ski touring tracks are seen in the snow going down the side of a large mountain.
Ski tracks are seen down the side of a mountain. Photo: Devin Holterman

The study area

The Recreation Ecology Research Project is collecting data from Alberta’s Kananaskis-Ghost and the Upper Columbia region of British Columbia. This information will be used to understand when, where, and how people are going outside in these places.  

The study area is home to incredible natural assets and are a reason adventure tourism and recreation are popular. 

Alberta’s Kananaskis-Ghost 

Just east of Banff, Yoho, Kootenay National Parks in Alberta’s Kananaskis Country and the Ghost Watershed holds parks and public lands — including the unprotected portion of the Bow River’s headwaters.  

British Columbia’s Upper Columbia 

Southeastern British Columbia is home to one of the world’s only inland temperate rainforests and the headwaters of the Columbia River. An increasingly popular place for outdoor sports and recreation during all seasons. 

Why this research matters 

This research is in demand! Our study results will lead to better land use planning and policy making by governments, and better decisions about development. Everyone wants trails that work for people and wildlife now and for generations to come.  

Recreation and tourism are important economic drivers in the study areas, so maintaining quality experiences is a priority concern.  

This research will help address issues related to recreation in the backcountry and improve recreation management and access to the places people love — while also reducing impacts to wildlife and their habitat.  

“Recreation is an important part of our lives. It impacts our well-being, economies and sense of belonging for people who live in and care about the mountains and foothills of western Canada.”

Project lead Dr. Annie Loosen

Reports and research


Supporting partners 

This multi-year project is a collaboration between Y2Y, University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) and others including provincial governments, land managers, researchers and you: 

  • Government of Alberta
  • Government of British Columbia
  • Nature Conservancy of Canada
  • Parks Canada
  • Braided Knowledge Environmental Consulting

We are grateful for support from our funders who include:

  • Animal Welfare Institute 
  • Calgary Foundation 
  • Donner Canadian Foundation 
  • Eco Canada 
  • Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation 
  • Mitacs Canada  
  • Parks Canada 
  • RBC Foundation  
  • The Volgenau Foundation 
  • Wilburforce Foundation 

Additional reading and project news: