Muddy Boots is our internal blog where our staff members share experiences getting their boots muddy with on-the-ground conservation research! You can find our contributions to external blogs and Op Eds here.
by Justina Ray
It has been a challenging year, to say the least. But with the consequences of human disturbance of natural areas and wildlife now being felt worldwide through a devastating spillover of the corona virus from wildlife to people, we found many ways to keep our important conservation science and policy work going despite the need to observe new demands, from flying solo on research projects instead of working directly with colleagues to keeping remote communities safe from infection.
And we did it in a whole variety of ways. In part, we relied even more heavily on partners to “deliver the goods,” whether they were deploying and retrieving sound recorders in the Western Arctic or retrieving acoustic monitors used to track sturgeon movements from a remote river in northern Ontario and shipping them south for analysis.
Community members in Sachs Harbour and Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories helped to retrieve acoustic monitors from the Arctic Ocean. The valuable data on these recorders will help us continue to track whale movements. Photo: WCS Canada. Note: Photo taken pre-COVID.
In Yukon, our partnership with the First Nation of Na-cho Nyäk Dun managed to complete a full survey of salmon spawning, water quality and erosion sources designed to inform the Beaver River land use plan thanks to carefully planned field work and gathering info from the air.
Our W. Garfield Weston Fellows, young scientists pursuing careers in conservation, refused to be deterred by the challenges of COVID. Every single one of the 11 fellows who we awarded research funding to this year found a way to keep their projects on track. One partnered with her spouse to carry on her field research within a natural social circle. Another turned to a backlog of samples collected by government scientists to replace samples that could no longer be gathered from the field.
Our own staff scientists pursued similarly innovative approaches, from using their kids to help set up camera traps to turning to “citizen science” platforms like iNaturalist.org to collect useful information on animal behaviour.
Our BC bats team continued to listen to thousands of bats and actually had one of the best years ever for collecting bat recordings, gathering roughly 200,000 acoustic recordings across BC while monitoring more than 500,000 hectares of bat habitat, all with automated recording equipment. This “no touch” research was invaluable in face of concerns about handling bats as the epidemic took hold.
We stopped capturing bats in mist nets for their own protection, but have resumed this work with new safety protocols in place. No North American bat has been found to have the virus responsible for COVID-19, but millions of bats have been sickened by a virus that leads to white-nose syndrome and was brought by people to North America. Photo: Jason Headley. Note: Photo taken pre-COVID.
In fact, last spring, the bat team stopped physically capturing bats, not out of concern about bats carrying COVID (no North American bat has been found to carry the virus) but of infecting bats we captured with the virus. Human transportation of a fungus from Europe into North America was, after all, exactly how bats became infected with white-nose syndrome, which has killed millions of bats in eastern North America. Similarly, we called it a wrap on the second season of our wolverine tracking project near Red Lake, Ontario earlier than usual in the spring due to similar concerns.
But for both bats and wolverines, we have revised research approaches to keep both the animals and our field crews safe and are now resuming our work to better understand species facing critical challenges. In fact, we are now tracking a record number of wolverines fitted with GPS collars in northern Ontario and have expanded our outreach to trappers and other northern residents to ensure we have as many eyes as possible on the lookout for these elusive animals.
We are now tracking a record number of GPS collared wolverines in Northern Ontario to better our understanding of how these elusive animals are faring in a landscape with significant industrial activity. Photo: Susan Morse
Of course, for some of our scientists, being “locked down” meant getting down to work on polishing those scientific papers that are a critical way for us to spread our findings and recommendations. One paper that was five years in the making, and went through several complete overhauls of the analyses, finally made it to print in this pandemic year.
Similarly, we continued to provide science-based input into government laws and policies on everything from mining in the Yukon and roads in the far north region of Ontario to protecting and promoting natural climate solutions. The Ontario government, in particular, has used the COVID crisis as a dubious rationale for severely weakening a number of environmental protection policies, from the province’s Endangered Species Act to the role of Conservation Authorities. Fortunately, the year started with a positive decision from the federal government around the need for a Regional Environmental Assessment in northern Ontario. We have been strongly advocating for such big picture planning before any steps are taken to open up this globally important intact area to resource development, so this was a big win.
Our hard work to build a wide network to support our Key Biodiversity Areas paid off when things took a turn. A huge collaborative effort involving governments, NGOs, universities and Indigenous communities to identify remarkable places that are key to the persistence of Canadian biodiversity helped keep this work going despite the need to cancel in-person workshops. Over 200 KBAs have been identified this year by regional coordinators and species and ecosystem experts working together, often virtually.
In Yukon, our researchers were welcomed onto farms that remained in full operation to carefully check on both how endangered barn swallow populations were faring and whether white roofs were helping to keep temperatures in bat houses in check. These supportive farmers understand how healthy wild ecosystems support their essential food growing efforts.
And we brought science to people through things like our peatland story map that has started an important conversation about the need to take new approaches to provide appropriate protection to such areas, which are critical to action on climate. With “knowledge sharing” moving online in a hurry, we found new audiences and new outlets for our work in everything from virtual conferences to social media.
Sometimes, wildlife even provided an interesting distraction from the bleak world news. Trying to re-capture tiny blackpoll warblers fitted with geo-locators in dense forests in Yukon to learn more about their amazing migratory journeys kept one pair of researchers very busy.
WCS Canada scientist Dr. Hilary Cooke holds a blackpoll warbler. These warblers undertake amazing migratory journeys and require well forested areas for nesting. Photo: WCS Canada.
Throughout all these challenges, a particular bright spot has been the way our supporters have stood with us. From foundations to individual donors, we have been honoured by the support we have received for our research and their understanding of why keeping wild places healthy is now more important than ever.
Our work in some of Canada’s most remote areas is never without challenges, but the COVID crisis certainly added an interesting new dimension. We are proud of the way our scientists rose to the challenge, stayed safe and brought home results that will be critical to helping Canada build back better.
Photo credits: Banner | Lila Tauzer © WCS Canada