Field research and ecosystem management also suffer in pandemics – but there are glimmers of hope

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues Ecological Solutions and Evidence Lead Editor, Holly Jones, addresses the impact of the pandemic on ecosystems and the people that research and manage them.

Long-term datasets with at least a year gap. Graduate students left wondering if they’ll have enough data to graduate on time. Advanced PhD students and post-docs left in a tailspin of uncertainty regarding job prospects. Early career researchers who can’t gather pilot data for that grant they need to advance. These are all very real research consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Note that this virus has had much more deadly consequences to human life and dire economic costs than the loss of research and management capital that is the focus of this blog post – of which I am conscious. Nonetheless, the research/management costs are occurring and are important to grapple with.

My own long-term research (which I outlined in last week’s #EcologyLive talk) is suffering. We have already had to cancel the first two of four annual small mammal trapping sessions. We have no plans to trap invertebrates this year. We are likely to still get to do our annual plant sampling – which we lovingly term Vegapalooza – and get some smaller individual projects accomplished. But, overall, this will be a hit to our research trajectory. One year lost on a long-term research project where I have a secure position is nothing next to the potential season lost for graduate students and a post-doc in my lab, whose career trajectories depend on getting solid field seasons in.

Our lab is in good company; when I asked the Twitterverse about impacts to their science or management practices, I heard a lot of discouraging stories. Projects put on hold. Huge breeding bird surveys cancelled. Prestigious travel fellowships like the Fulbright called off. Field research to better understand the breeding biology of critically endangered species scrapped. Anything requiring significant travel is cancelled, including critically important landscape-scale research. Without a doubt, the impacts of this pandemic will be enduring via gaps in research, lengthening graduate students’ time to degrees and dampening job prospects for the foreseeable future.

A close up of a bird

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Albatross breeding on Midway Atoll, the world’s largest albatross breeding colony. In the last few years, invasive mice on Midway have been attacking breeding albatross, prompting efforts to eradicate the mice. But that work, which was scheduled to take place in summer 2020, had to be delayed due to Covid-19. Photo © Wieteke Holthuijzen

And this isn’t just hitting academics and the research enterprise. It’s impacting our ability to manage and conserve the ecosystems that need us most. The US Fish and Wildlife Service had to postpone the eradication of mice from the biggest colony of breeding albatross in the world, Midway Atoll. The largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has closed all of its refuges and furloughed employees. Managers at my field site were only able to get a few prescribed fires in before the fire season had to be ended prematurely. Some entire states had bans on prescribed fires, with serious implications for controlling unwanted vegetation. Workdays to control invasive species, plant trees, and introduce children to land management have been foregone, leaving much work for managers and volunteers once we are able to safely do so again. All the while other managers have talked about the increased need for trail maintenance due to larger crowds accessing outdoor spaces, and scientists who are able to work in those areas are struggling to keep their distance from crowds.

A lot of the land management work where I live in Illinois is done by volunteer stewards, who are often retirees. These heroes of the conservation world are also those at highest risk of complications from SARS-Cov-2. While many people are touting the reduction in pollution due to imposed lockdowns, the need to protect people from this deadly disease is resulting in a reduced ability to manage the land. We can’t know the long-term consequences of this worldwide pause in management, but in the short term, the increase in invasive species, slowed down monitoring/research on endangered species, and decrease in engagement with kids about the natural world, are all acute impacts.

A picture containing outdoor, grass, person, water

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Post-doc in our lab Pete Guiden and I grid out our research sites, with proper PPE and social distance. Pete rides in the bed of the truck while I drive and we keep our distance as much as possible in the field

While my heart is breaking from all the foregone research and management and for the long-term impacts on the research/management enterprise, there is always room for hope. Some local fieldwork and management is possible, as long as people can maintain social distancing. Just last week, a post-doc in my lab and I were able to get out and grid our sites in hopes that we will be able to monitor the plant communities in them and trap small mammals sometime this year. A Master’s student in my lab will be doing research on the bird community response to bison without the field assistant he would have preferred to have to help. Pete, our lab’s post-doc, will still be doing some scaled back mammal sampling for his research and to get pilot data for grant proposals. The managers at our study site have been able to carry out socially-distanced management activities and are bringing a smaller field crew on, who will take their own extreme precautions. The scientist at the site has been performing research for other scientists currently not able to get out there. At other field sites in Illinois, reintroduction of head started Blanding’s turtles will go forward, but with fewer field assistants to help track their fates via telemetry.

A person holding an animal

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Young Blanding’s turtles are put in captivity for a year so they can grow without predation. Then they get reintroduced to the wild, in hopes their survival is higher than if they hadn’t been headstarted. More information about their recovery program can be found here. Photo © Callie Klatt-Golba

Some days are harder than others in this pandemic. On my good days, I think about my colleagues, who are pulling long hours tracking baby turtles in hopes we can better understand how to conserve their populations for future generations. Their hard work brings me hope. Though the impacts of this pandemic will be long-lasting, our current situation is only temporary. I’m hopeful that because we will never return to what was before, society will use this regime shift as an opportunity to live in better harmony with nature, for the sake of future generations who will depend on it.

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