Influences of microhabitat constraints and rock-climbing disturbance on cliff-face vegetation communities

Conserv Biol. 2006 Jun;20(3):821-32. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2006.00367.x.


Many researchers report that rock climbing has significant negative effects on cliff biota. Most work on climbing disturbance, however has not controlled for variation in microsite characteristics when comparing areas with and without climbing presence. Additionally, some researchers do not identify the style or difficulty level of climbing routes sampled or select climbing routes that do not represent current trends in the sport. We solved these problems by sampling climbing areas used by advanced "sport" climbers and quantifying differences in microtopography between climbed and control cliffs. We determined whether differences in vegetation existed between pristine and sport-climbed cliff faces when microsite factors were not controlled. We then determined the relative influence of the presence of climbing, cliff-face microtopography, local physical factors, and regional geography on the richness, abundance, and community composition of cliff-face vascular plants, bryophytes, and lichens. When we did not control for microsite differences among cliffs, our results were consistent with the majority of prior work on impacts of climbing (i.e., sport-climbed cliff faces supported a lower mean richness of vascular plants and bryophytes and significantly different frequencies of individual species when compared with pristine cliff faces). When we investigated the relative influences of microtopography and climbing disturbance, however the differences in vegetation were not related to climbing disturbance but rather to the selection by sport climbers of cliff faces with microsite characteristics that support less vegetation. Climbed sites had not diverged toward a separate vegetation community; instead, they supported a subset of the species found on pristine cliff faces. Prior management recommendations to restrict development of new climbing routes should be reevaluated based on our results.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Conservation of Natural Resources*
  • Ecosystem*
  • Plant Development*
  • Sports*