As the sport of outdoor rock climbing rapidly grows, there is increasing pressure to understand how it can affect communities of organisms in cliff habitats. To that end, we surveyed 32 cliff sites in Boulder, Colorado, USA, and assessed the relative roles of human recreation and natural habitat features as drivers of bird diversity and activity. We detected only native avian species during our observations. Whereas avian abundance was not affected by climbing, avian species diversity and community conservation value were higher at low-use climbing formations. Models indicated that climber presence and cliff aspect were important predictors of both avian diversity and avian cliff use within our study area, while long-term climbing use frequency has a smaller, but still negative association with conservation value and cliff use by birds in the area. In contrast, the diversity of species on the cliff itself was not affected by any of our measured factors. To assess additional community dynamics, we surveyed vegetation and arthropods at ten site pairs. Climbing negatively affected lichen communities, but did not significantly affect other vegetation metrics or arthropods. We found no correlations between avian diversity and diversity of either vegetation or arthropods. Avian cliff use rate was positively correlated with arthropod biomass. We conclude that while rock climbing is associated with lower community diversity at cliffs, some common cliff-dwelling birds, arthropods and plants appear to be tolerant of climbing activity. An abiotic factor, cliff aspect strongly affected patterns of both avian diversity and cliff use, suggesting that the negative effects of rock climbing may be mitigated by informed management of cliff habitat that considers multiple site features.
Covy, N., Benedict, L., & Keeley, W. H. (2019). Rock climbing activity and physical habitat attributes impact avian community diversity in cliff environments. PLoS ONE, 14(1). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209557