The Science behind OHV Restrictions

Guest Blog: With the creation in Alberta of the Castle provincial and wildlands parks, the proposed parks in the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River (Bighorn) and the recreation plans for the Livingston and Porcupine areas of southern Alberta, there has been considerable controversy over the use of off-highway vehicles (OHVs) in our wild lands. Unlike many other jurisdictions in North America, OHV users have had few restrictions placed on them in Alberta. The result has been the considerable destruction of fish and wildlife habitat, not to mention the damage to our potable water sources and the wild places where Albertans like to re-create themselves. Fisheries biologist Lorne Fitch (and frequent guest blogger here) has written about the use of OHVs and how they’ve destroyed much valuable fisheries and wildlife habitat (e.g., Tracks and Spoor and Myths about Off-Highway Vehicle Use). Here, he answers the challenges of OHV groups to show the scientific evidence for their destructive use (as if it wasn’t obvious). This piece was first published in the Lethbridge Herald.

The Science behind OHV Restrictions
by Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.
Copyright © 2018

There have been recent cries from some in the Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) community to “show me” the science behind restrictions on motorized recreational use. They should know that their request for “peer-reviewed” science has been heeded and a report from the Environmental Monitoring and Science Division of Alberta Environment and Parks was released in December 2017. The report is titled Ecological Response to Human Activities in Southwestern Alberta: Scientific Assessment and Synthesis . Perhaps the contents have not been widely distributed, or read.

OHV bog

”The sheer force from spinning tires on OHVs further contributes to and intensifies erosion…”

Ten Canadian scientists whose credentials are solid prepared this report. It relies on over 150 references that pertain to landscapes that are ecologically similar to those in southwestern Alberta. No relevant science was left out.

Here are some of the notable quotes from the report to provide a sense of what the scientific consensus is on OHV use:

“OHV use across all seasons causes a disproportionate level of impact and damage compared to non-motorized recreational activities.”

“Impacts are often irreversible.” “…any natural recovery is either slow or non-existent.”

”The sheer force from spinning tires on OHVs further contributes to and intensifies erosion…”

“Vegetation loss and soil compaction associated with OHV use contributes to conditions that favor invasive species.”

“Trail usage can change the overall hydrology of the area by creating new flow pathways and, therefore also result in increased sediment movement.”

“Sediment production from OHV trails was three times greater than from forest roads…”

“Increased sedimentation associated with linear footprints has been linked to population reduction of stream trout.”

Seven hundred peer-reviewed studies “found that both the noise and physical presence of OHVs in wildlife areas effectively reduced habitat connectivity, changed animal movements and altered population and recolonization dynamics.”

The authors have inventoried the amount of access in the Castle area of southwestern Alberta and document 1615 stream crossings. Motorized trails cross some streams more than ten times in a single kilometre. Even streams that provide critical habitat for native cutthroat trout and bull trout have almost one crossing per kilometre of stream length.

Every stream crossing contributes sediment to the system, in excess of natural background levels. This has profoundly negative effects on trout populations, and impacts water quality in an area that is the source for downstream water taps. The existing 50 OHV bridges need to be contrasted against over 1600 other stream crossings in the Castle alone and 3990 in the Livingstone-Porcupine Hills. The reality is that OHV bridges often still have fords beside them, where many users still splash through streams.

Installing a few OHV bridges and cleaning up litter is laudable, but barely begins to deal with the issues created by OHV use. This report should be a wakeup call for the OHV community and not a reason for further entrenchment of attitudes and opinions into a mudhole of denial. OHV users might be able to drive away from this evidence – but they cannot hide from it.

A telling quote from the report is: “The mere presence of OHVs is a greater determinant of the degree of associated environmental effects than varying levels of OHV use.”

This comprehensive, impartial and objective report by qualified Canadian scientists is the definitive assessment of the effects of OHV use. As such, it is time to start an adult conversation about solving the issues rather than continuing to trot out the prevailing myths, misconceptions, distortions and opinions to defend a recreational activity that most Albertans don’t indulge in, but that clearly impairs public lands and waters that all Albertans should be able to enjoy on foot.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at

About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I wrote a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine, and have published articles for several other magazines.
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