Why All-Terrain Vehicles and Wildlife Do Not Mix

Tuesday, June 13, 2017
By: Kevin Chlad - Adirondack Council Director of Government Relations

Now that the snow has completely thawed and the air has warmed, for some it is time for hiking, canoeing, mountain biking, fishing. For others, it is time to ride their all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). For many, ATVs are used as tools on working farms and forests, around job and construction sites, and for some, ATVs are used for recreational purposes. As riders tune up their machines for the year, get gas and buy last minute supplies before leaving for their destination, it is worth considering other costs associated with this activity for which others foot the bill.

ATV impacts include noise disturbance, damage to vegetation, increased runoff, soil erosion, and degradation of water quality. Wildlife also suffer from all of these impacts. Unfortunately, when ATVs leave trails…and there is extensive evidence that this occurs…these impacts to wildlife are even worse.

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Increased Runoff and Soil Compaction and Erosion

As ATVs move across the land, their heavy weight (anywhere from 400 to over 1,000 pounds) compacts soil. Soil compaction changes the properties of the soil, by squeezing the tiny air spaces out of what would normally be healthy soils. When this happens, water cannot be absorbed into the ground, likely causing runoff. When runoff occurs, surface soils are washed downhill into water, where sediments have negative impacts on aquatic habitats for fish, amphibians and other wildlife. Soil compaction also limits root growth for plants, including those that wildlife feed on.

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Degradation of Water Quality

As soils are washed into nearby waters, water quality is disrupted in a number of ways. Sediment that is suspended in the water blocks light that is needed for aquatic plants to photosynthesize. Sediment also settles into tiny gaps in rocks lying on river bottoms, clogging pockets that are used by small invertebrates that provide important food for fish and amphibians. The river’s ability to add much-needed oxygen to the waters that flow through it are also disrupted, displacing fish like trout, which require oxygen-rich waters. When ATVs cross streams, damage occurs to aquatic plants and habitat where frogs and turtles can be found. When extensive damage occurs in a wetland, its ability to function is greatly reduced, meaning that our natural filters cannot adequately clean water.

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Damage to Habitats and Vegetation

When ATVs leave trails, plants and young saplings are damaged, reducing coverage for the forest floor. As soil is eroded, roots are often exposed and damaged, thereby harming nearby trees. ATVs also act as a means for invasive species to find their way deep into forests, when plant fragments and seeds get stuck on the machine and are carried for long distances. Invasive species are known to disrupt local ecosystems and food sources for wildlife.

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Noise Disturbance

One of the greatest, yet least tangible, impacts of ATV’s have on wildlife stems from the noise these machines create. Just as with humans, wildlife can suffer auditory damage. A report published by the Wildlife Conservation Society, entitled “All-Terrain Vehicles in the Adirondacks” states that, “[n]oise from motors can affect predator-prey relationships by masking the sounds that generally have an important role in those interactions. High levels of background noise can have a number of indirect effects as well. Noise can cause an increase in animals’ heart rates, and affect behavior patterns such as nesting and reproduction or feeding and foraging. These impacts may or may not be devastating to an animal depending on the season, its energy budget, and the extent of the disturbance.” (Page 22)

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Other Impacts

The Wildlife Conservation Society also notes in their report that, “[a]nother habitat modification impact pertains to the micro-habitats that are sometimes created when pools form in rutted trails. Particularly, if this happens in the wet spring season, amphibians may be attracted to the area for breeding, despite the fact that their chances of survival in an ATV trail are poor.” (Page 22) The ruts left behind an ATV hold the potential to lure frogs and salamanders into harm’s way, by creating faux environments that may appear ideal at first, but are actually dangerous. Illegal trails created by ATV ruts fragment habitat, and establish a means for the invasive species, noise, and direct impact to occur in sensitive areas away from main roads. Habitat fragmentation is widely regarded as a major threat to species diversity.

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So what can be done to minimize the extent to which these impacts occur in our Adirondack Park? The first and most important thing that is needed is reform of ATV riding in New York State Law. ATV advocates continue to push for expanded riding. This should not be permitted until the legislature codifies a general ban on ATV riding on the Adirondack Forest Preserve and other state lands. As part of a reform package, enhanced rider enforcement and education efforts should be supported, as should efforts to incentivize riding on designated private lands, where science deems it most appropriate. Until then, please contact state policymakers today to ask them, “when do the negative impacts of inappropriate ATV use become too much?”


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Uploaded Image: /uploads/kevin-chlad.jpgKevin joined the Adirondack Council staff in 2011.

Kevin leads the Council’s Albany-based Government Relations team, building coalitions and lobbying government officials to improve protection and grow funding for the Adirondack Park.

Kevin Chlad graduated in 2008 with a degree in Environmental Studies of the Adirondacks from SUNY Potsdam. Besides his previous time spent at the Adirondack Council as a Clarence Petty Intern in 2009, Kevin has held numerous other Adirondack occupations, including Ausable River Steward, canoe guide, and fire tower summit steward. When not advocating for the Park, Kevin can be found on the golf course, deep in the wilderness, or clinging to the occasional rock face or hanging from an icicle drip. He lives in Delmar, NY with his best friend and wife Michelle.


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