Using Trail Cameras to Assess Recreation in Hellbender Streams of North Carolina National Forests

Each year the number of recreational visitors to southeastern national forests increases which brings new challenges for wildlife managers related to visitor activity and their potential effects of visitors on natural resources. This increasing visitation and recreation may affect species inhab-iting streams if these habitats are modified by visitors. North Carolina includes some of the last stable populations of a fully aquatic salamander, the eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis). Few studies have assessed instream recreation (e.g., fishing, tubing, swimming) and

related habitat alteration in watersheds known to contain protected aquatic species. From 2017-2018, we deployed trail cameras at local day-use access points within tributaries of the French Broad River, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina (six stations across three streams) during potential high visitation holiday periods (Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Labor Day). In addition, we tracked habitat modification of streams within this watershed by enumerating any altered habitat (evidence of rock movement, dams, or cairns within 100 m of view of the camera stations). The highest number of rec-

reational visitors per image across sites occurred during the 4th of July time period (average=20.1, minimum=1, maximum=55). The most frequent recreational activity documented by percentage of observations across from trail cameras included visitors standing on banks (32.2%), wading (30.2%) and swimming (14.6%), followed by tubing (9.0%), taking photos (4.9%), and fishing (2.7%). The majority of observations in our study showed visitors recreating with little to no visible impact to resources. However, we found many instances (n=224) of alteration of vital hellbender larval shelter (cobble habitat) and removal of rocks, and we documented evidence of repeated alteration of instream habitat in all stations including building of cairns and dams which can alter flow across all sites and years surveyed. Implementation of outreach programs could inform recreationists on the potential nega-tive effects of rock moving, which may reduce alteration of instream habitat.

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