Coronavirus Delays Conservation Efforts in Pennsylvania

Written by on May 12, 2020

Coronavirus Delays Conservation Efforts in Pennsylvania

By Kara Holsopple, The Allegheny Front

May 12, 2020

Luke DeGroote holds a Northern Flicker in 2017. Bird banding is currently on hold during the shutdown. Photo courtesy of Powerdermill Nature Reserve

Many sectors of the economy have been halted or changed by the coronavirus pandemic, and environmental research is no exception. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple looks at the impacts in Pennsylvania.

When your goal is placing tiny bands on the legs of migrating birds to track and learn more about them, you get to know the other three or four other people you’re working with much better.

“You’re working very closely with them, taking the birds out of the nets, handing them to someone. They’re measuring it. So it would be impossible not to transmit disease between people.” 

Luke DeGroote is the Avian Research Coordinator at Powdermill Nature Reserve in the Laurel Highlands. They’ve been banding birds there each spring since 1961, except since the middle of this March when Pennsylvanians were encouraged, then ordered to stay at home.

“The whole spring season is basically lost,” said DeGroote.

But he says missing just one season won’t make a huge difference in the long term value of a dataset that’s been collected over almost over more than 60 years. They won’t have volunteers this summer, but DeGroote is hoping that eventually that banding will resume with two people, following safety guidelines from the North American Banding Council, which DeGroote himself helped draft.

More pressing is the project to install tracking stations for birds and other wildlife, like Monarch butterflies, fitted with tiny radio transmitters. The project team had to postpone installation in Pennsylvania and reevaluate traveling to Maryland and New York. Degroote says this pushes back critical research.

“There’s researchers putting transmitters on rusty blackbirds, which are a species…well, all these species are declining… so rusty blackbirds and long eared bats. Those activities can’t be happening now and it’s uncertain whether or not they would be happening in the fall.”

One upside is that installation of these stations can be done with just one or two people, in pretty remote areas. This tension between doing their work and staying safe is something Jeff Wagner, and his staff are struggling with. He’s director of the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, which gathers information about important plant and animal species across the state. 

He says it’s a risk sending researchers far out into the field where they could be hurt, or their car could break down—making all that physical distancing counterproductive.

“So there’s gonna be big parts of the state that we’re not even going to consider going to. We’re not going to go to Potter County because it’s too long a drive to go there and go back in one day,” said Wagner.

Wagner says when it’s possible, staff will try to get to projects they can do alone, closer to where they live in Pittsburgh or Harrisburg. But not having boots on the ground in some areas of the state where data is collected on Pennsylvania’s rare species and habitats will have an impact on their database of nearly 25,000 records.

“A season lost is one year of data that we can’t update or in some cases new data to collect to put in the database. So it just kind of compounds the issue of keeping data current.” 

And Wagner says the more current data are, the more useful they are. The database is consulted in environmental reviews for any type of project that requires a permit from the state’s Department of Environmental protection, from gas pipelines to shopping malls. Wagner says while they already rely on remote data like aerial photography, there’s no substitute for field work.

Something else that has to be done in person is planting trees. Tree Pittsburgh planned on putting thousands in the ground this spring, from corporate-sponsored events to tree giveaways. 

Danielle Crumrine, Tree Pittsburgh’s Executive Director, says right now many of those trees are being cared for by staff in their nursery, and they’re working out delivery and pickup models for the public to get trees safely. But the pandemic is going to hit their budget hard, Crumrine says. They weren’t able to bring back two seasonal workers and she’s looking at salary cuts. 

“Just when we were ready to start really scaling up and I mean going from planting, three to four thousand trees a year, let’s plant 10,000 trees a year as part of the mayor’s big tree planting initiative to plant 100,000 trees. I think that’s going to be a big, big challenge,” said Crumrine.

Crumrine says their work is part of a bigger picture, too.

“When you think about the amount of funding that all of the environmental groups have leveraged for capital projects in this region… leaders within this sector like myself, we need to stress the importance of the environmental organizations continuing and thriving as major contributors to the economic recovery.”

Until then, Tree Pittsburgh and other groups are planning for an uncertain future, and catching up on paperwork. 


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