Mountain hares Lepus timidus and tourism: stress events and reactions



  1. Winter tourism in the European Alps has developed rapidly over the past few decades, leading to the expansion of ski resorts, growing numbers of visitors and a massive increase in snow sport activities such as free-ride skiing and snowboarding, backcountry skiing and snowshoeing. Wildlife is often disturbed by these largely unpredictable activities, and animals may have limited opportunities to adapt. Mountain hares Lepus timidus are affected by this increase in alpine tourism, but their physiological and behavioural reactions to tourist activity are still unknown.
  2. We measured the levels of faecal glucocorticoid metabolites (GCM) in wild mountain hares living in areas that had no, medium or high levels of tourist activity during winter in 2011. Furthermore, we compared the changes in GCM excretion, behaviour and food intake of six captive mountain hares following predator challenge experiments from early to mid-winter.
  3. Our field results showed that GCM excretion is positively correlated with increased tourism intensity. In the predator challenge experiments, hares spent less time resting and grooming (including re-ingesting faecal pellets) during and after the stress treatments. These stress events lead to higher energy demands due to flushing, increased GCM levels, and disrupted the energy intake that hares derive from faeces.
  4. We conclude that mountain hares living in areas with frequent human winter recreational activities show changes in physiology and behaviour that demand additional energy in winter, when access to food resources is limited by snow.
  5. Synthesis and applications. To bring down the frequency of stress threats for mountain hares, we recommend that managers keep forests inhabited by mountain hares free of tourism infrastructure and retain undisturbed forest patches within skiing areas. Other species such as black grouse Tetrao tetrix and/or capercaillie Tetrao urogallus are also likely to benefit from such management activities because they share similar habitat requirements with mountain hares.