Insights from a 31-year study demonstrate an inverse correlation between recreational activities and red deer fecundity, with bodyweight as a mediator

Weterings, Martijn J.A.; Ebbinge, Estella Y.C.; Strijker, Beau N.; Spek, Gerrit Jan; Kuipers, Henry J.


Human activity is omnipresent in our landscapes. Animals can perceive risk from humans similar to predation risk, which could affect their fitness. We assessed the influence of the relative intensity of recreational activities on the bodyweight and pregnancy rates of red deer (Cervus elaphus) between 1985 and 2015. We hypothesized that stress, as a result of recreational activities, affects the pregnancy rates of red deer directly and indirectly via a reduction in bodyweight. Furthermore, we expected non-motorized recreational activities to have a larger negative effect on both bodyweight and fecundity, compared to motorized recreational activities. The intensity of recreational activities was recorded through visual observations. We obtained pregnancy data from female red deer that were shot during the regular hunting season. Additionally, age and bodyweight were determined through a post-mortem examination. We used two Generalized-Linear-Mixed Models (GLMM) to test the effect of different types of recreation on (1) pregnancy rates and (2) bodyweight of red deer. Recreation had a direct negative correlation with the fecundity of red deer, with bodyweight, as a mediator as expected. Besides, we found a negative effect of non-motorized recreation on fecundity and bodyweight and no significant effect of motorized recreation. Our results support the concept of humans as an important stressor affecting wild animal populations at a population level and plead to regulate recreational activities in protected areas that are sensitive. The fear humans induce in large-bodied herbivores and its consequences for fitness may have strong implications for animal populations.