High-altitude ski runs are seriously affecting Alpine birds, ecologists have found for the first time. Writing in the January issue of the Journal of Applied Ecology, Italian ecologists warn that ski pistes above the tree line result in fewer species and lower numbers of birds compared with natural grassland at similar altitudes. Ski developers should use new, environmentally-friendly techniques when constructing pistes in future, they say.
According to Professor Antonio Rolando and colleagues from Turin University: "Winter sports represent a potentially serious threat to the conservation of wildlife habitat in the Alps. Bulldozers and power shovels are used to remove soil and provide suitable slopes for skiers. To a lesser extent, vegetation may also be damaged by skiing and ski-piste preparation by snow-grooming vehicles. The ski pistes that we sampled were devastated environmental patches, from which shrubby and herbaceous native vegetation had been removed and/or severely damaged and artificial seeding - if any - had produced very poor grass cover."
Working at the top of the Susa Valley - the site of last year's Winter Olympics - and around the Monte Rosa and Monte Bianco massifs in the western Italian Alps, the team measured the number of birds and the number of bird species at seven sites between 2010 metres and 2892 metres.
They found that, compared with natural grassland, ski pistes had fewer species and lower numbers of birds. Areas next to ski pistes also suffered, supporting lower numbers of birds. They found fewer arthropods on the ski pistes, suggesting that a shortage of food may be responsible for so few birds occurring on these sites.
"More than one-quarter of the 26 bird species in this study - including the rock partridge, the red-billed chough and the wheatear - are classified as species of European conservation concern," Professor Rolando says.
As winter snowfall at lower altitudes becomes less reliable, high altitude alpine areas are increasingly important to the skiing industry. To allow birds and skiers to co-exist, developers will have to change their practices. According to Professor Rolando: "Retaining the bird life of these zones is likely to involve developing new, environmentally-friendly ways of constructing pistes, such as only removing rocks or levelling the roughest ground surfaces in order to preserve as much soil and natural vegetation as possible."