Masthead banner of Park Science: Integrating Research and Resource Management in the National Parks; ISSN 1090-9966; link to current issue
Volume 26
Number 3
Winter 2009-2010
Arrowhead symbol of the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior
Home + About + Author Guidelines + Archive + Subscribe +  
Science Notes
Published: 4 Sep 2015 (online)  •  14 Sep 2015 (in print)
Applying community noise metrics in parks
  Relating wildlife behavioral responses to noise to ecological consequences
Tolerating noise and the ecological costs of “habituation”
+ PDF +
Relating wildlife behavioral responses to noise to ecological consequences

By Jesse R. Barber and Kurt M. Fristrup

Caribou roam the Arctic tundra of Alaska’s North Slope along the 414-mile Dalton Highway. © Steven Kazlowski/

© Steven Kazlowski/

Caribou roam the Arctic tundra of Alaska’s North Slope along the 414-mile Dalton Highway, also known as the Haul Road. Research suggests caribou reduce their activity 50–95% within 3 miles of human infrastructure and activities.

THE EFFECTS OF NOISE ON WILDLIFE are most commonly documented by observations of behavioral responses, because experimental trials are brief and readily replicated. Studies that document changes in population density or spatial distribution are more difficult and less common, but they address ecological issues that relate directly to resource conservation. Can focal, behavioral studies provide reliable indications of ecological consequences of noise? Yes, if the immediate response measure relates directly to demographic and ecological processes.

For example, recent data collected on the effects of noise on breeding boreal songbirds showed that pairing success was significantly reduced in noisy environments around natural gas compressor stations (Habib et al. 2007). Noisy areas were disproportionately populated by younger males, and they were less successful at attracting mates than were young males in quiet areas. Subsequent survey work by the same laboratory confirmed the expected ecological consequences: passerine birds had a density 1.5 times higher in quiet control sites than they did near loud compressor stations (Bayne et al. 2008).

Two sets of studies on the responses of ungulates to anthropogenic disturbance events associated with high levels of noise (roads, oil/gas extraction, and military training) illustrate misleading inferences from small spatial-scale, focal studies. Decades of research have been devoted to the responses of caribou (Rangifer tarandus) to human activities; 85 of these studies were reviewed by Vistnes and Nellemann (2007). They found that only 13% of focal, behavioral studies document significant responses. This suggests low-frequency impacts, and the evidence could be dismissed as equivocal. However, 83% of the studies conducted over large spatial scales document substantial negative effects. Within 5 kilometers (3 mi) of human infrastructure or activities, caribou reduce habitat utilization by 50–95% (see photo). Studies of endangered Sonoran pronghorn (Antilocapra americana sonoriensis) yielded a similar pattern: minimal behavioral responses to noise (Krausman et al. 2004), but landscape-scale analysis revealed significant preference for quiet and avoidance of noise (Krausman et al. 2004).

Failure to observe behavioral responses to noise during focal experiments does not provide a strong basis for dismissing ecological impacts. These studies indicate the importance of selecting behavioral response metrics that are intimately related to population consequences. However, negative evidence of behavioral responses to noise, even with the best metrics, cannot be as decisively interpreted. The prevalence of documented noise impacts suggests the need for adaptive management at the appropriate spatial scale even when initial studies indicate no significant problems.

What about behavioral responses that are not accompanied by population consequences? Fishery or game resource managers would dismiss these impacts, but the National Park Service is required to preserve for future generations the opportunity to experience unimpaired wildlife resources. Shifts in habitat use and activity schedules may render wildlife less accessible to visitors, and behavioral adaptations to noise constitute degradation of the authentic ecological conditions that parks were created to preserve.


Bayne, E. M., L. Habib, and S. Boutin. 2008. Impacts of chronic anthropogenic noise from energy-sector activity on abundance of songbirds in the boreal forest. Conservation Biology 22:1186–1193.

Habib, L., E. M. Bayne, and S. Boutin. 2007. Chronic industrial noise affects pairing success and age structure of ovenbirds Seiurus aurocapilla. Journal of Applied Ecology 44:176–184.

Krausman, P. R., L. K. Harris, C. L. Blasch, K. K. G. Koenen, and J. Francine. 2004. Effects of military operations on behavior and hearing of endangered Sonoran pronghorn. Wildlife Monographs 157:1–41.

Vistnes, I., and C. Nellemann. 2007. Impacts of human activity on reindeer and caribou: The matter of spatial and temporal scales. Rangifer 12:47–56.

About the authors

Return to top

– Previous • Page 2 of 3 • Next +
From the Guest Editor(s)
Comments and Corrections
At Your Service
Information Crossfile
  Science Notes
Field Moment
Meetings of Interest
Masthead Information
From landscapes to soundscapes: Introduction to the special issue
Measuring and monitoring soundscapes in the national parks
Integrating soundscapes into National Park Service planning
Excerpt from Governors Island General Management Plan
Conserving the wild life therein--Protecting park fauna from anthropogenic noise
Soundscapes monitoring and an overflight advisory group: Informing real-time management decisions at Denali
Soundscape management at Grand Canyon National Park
Tools of the trade: An example of using spectrograms to count fixed-wing aircraft
Visually impaired students help collect acoustic data in Grand Canyon National Park
Protecting the acoustic conditions at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Generator noise along the U.S.-Mexico border
Airport expansion adjacent to San Antonio Missions
A program of research to support management of visitor-caused noise at Muir Woods National Monument
Modeling and mapping hikers’ exposure to transportation noise in Rocky Mountain National Park
Aircraft overflights at national parks: Conflict and its potential resolution
Managing the natural soundscape: The National Park Service as a learning organization
Related Publications + Explore Nature + + Privacy + Disclaimer + Contact Editor
Web Site Last Updated: 16 September 2015