Thursday, January 25, 2007

Ski Trails: Fun for Skiers Trouble for Some Species

Unfortunately skiing also affects habitat.


A Bird's-Eye View of Ski Trails' Perils

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Published: January 23, 2007

While a ski trail can provide plenty of enjoyment (at least when there is enough snow to cover it), from an environmental standpoint it is a scar on the landscape. This is especially true for trails constructed below the tree line, where large patches of forest must be clear-cut to make way for skiers.

But such trails are more than just eyesores. They also chop up habitat for birds and other animals. Studies have shown, for instance, that there is less bird diversity in forested areas along ski runs.

What about trails above the tree line, like those at high-altitude resorts in the Alps? They may not seem so damaging, because no trees are harmed in their creation. But slopes are smoothed, rocks are removed, and the original vegetation — low shrubs and grasses — is eliminated.

A new study by Antonio Rolando and colleagues at the University of Turin in Italy shows that even these more open trails can affect birds that spend summers at high elevation. Dr. Rolando and his team studied populations of water pipits, black redstarts and other birds in and around high-altitude ski trails in northern Italy, including some built for the 2006 Turin Olympics. They counted birds in three types of plots: within a trail, adjacent to it and far away.

The plots within ski trails had relatively few birds over all and low species diversity — a measure of both the number of species and the number of individuals in each species. Adjacent and far-off plots had higher diversity, but adjacent plots had low bird density as well. The findings were reported in The Journal of Applied Ecology.

"Habitat loss is surely very important," Dr. Rolando wrote in an e-mail message, "because most species during summer forage in grass, and some also make nests on the ground." The researchers found that the habitat loss also affected arthropod populations; there were fewer insects in the trail plots, so there was less food for the birds.

Dr. Rolando said that while there were still many undeveloped areas in the high Alps, further construction of trails could affect certain birds considered under threat. Resort operators, he said, could help by modifying their construction methods, grading slopes less and removing less vegetation, though not to the point of making trails unsafe for skiers.

"The best thing," he wrote, "is to preserve as much soil and natural vegetation as possible."

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