July 15, 2020

Are the animals in Kananaskis Country thriving during the pandemic?

Biogeoscience researchers weigh in on impact and benefits of reduced human presence

Amid the global pandemic, many look for glimmers of good news. As people around the world have been staying at home, and industries have been slowed or stopped all together, positive stories about animals and the environment have been circulating the web.

Some stories, such as the appearance of humpback whales in Montreal, are more true than others like dolphins in Venice canals. Pictures of curious deer, moose and bears sneaking a peek through windows have been showing up, presumably asking, “Where are all the people?" But how do we really know the impact of COVID-19 on wildlife, and more specifically, wildlife in Alberta?

  • Photo above: Grizzlies on the highway. Photo by Briana Van Den Busshe

The University of Calgary’s Biogeoscience Institute has hosted researchers studying animals from fish to beavers since 1950. Some researchers have been engaged in collecting data for more than 10 years, so we reached out for their opinion on what COVID-19 might mean for animals and ecology research in the area.

Responses have been compiled by Dr. Vincent A. Viblanc (CNRS, IPHC, France), from Dr. Stephen Dobson (Auburn University), Dr. Kathreen Ruckstuhl, PhD (University of Calgary), Dr. Jeffrey Lane (University of Saskatoon), and Dr. Peter Neuhaus, PhD (University of Calgary).

Q: As a wildlife ecologist, how do you think reduced human presence in Kananaskis has impacted wildlife?

A: Reduced human presence caused by confinement measures due to COVID-19 is likely to have improved wildlife conditions in Kananaskis, at least as far as encroachment with human activities are concerned. 

Our personal observations over the years indicate that part of the wildlife retreats to more secluded areas when human presence in the parks increase. Early in the season, when the road closure is in place, large ungulates and bears are seen more frequently on the roads and at lower altitudes. Once the road opens and high daily traffic occurs, animal sightings become more restricted and they are more likely to be spotted at higher altitudes. When people visit the park with dogs that are off-leash, it also disturbs wildlife.

With ground squirrels specifically, road kills are frequent and only occur when the road is open and a large number of vehicles can transit. Regarding human disturbance, we think the impact of decreased human presence has been overall positive for wildlife in Kananaskis.

Q: How would a research scientist evaluate if animals were impacted by reduced human presence due to COVID-19?

A: As scientists, the main metrics would be the abundance of species seen, the spatial distribution of these species or individuals, and their size and dynamics of their populations (increased reproduction, for example). In this regard, COVID-19 would have provided an unprecedented opportunity to assess the effects of human disturbance on the populations by being able to monitor them in the absence of disturbance.

Unfortunately, due to social distancing requirements, most of the wildlife population monitoring was sparse. Whether the data holds the power to detect substantial effects remains to be seen.

Q: How do you think COVID-19 might affect research in the field of ecology overall?

A: This is a complex issue. Worldwide, where aspects of the COVID-19 confinement situation has undoubtedly been beneficial, other aspects for ecosystems, species and biodiversity are likely to be negative.

For instance, several reports highlight strong positive effects on reduced carbon emissions during the lockdown, or reduced pollution levels around cities with likely consequences on animal species.

However, the COVID-19 situation also brings complexities in human-animal relationships and our perception of wild animals and our ability to protect them. Together with phasing out of lockdown and restarting the economy and the desire to go outdoors could lead to a situation where the human impact on the environment and biodiversity is worsened. 

Studies highlight the One Health concept and how human and ecosystem health are interconnected. For instance, healthy ecosystems of high biodiversity play an important service role in disease regulation. We need to protect biodiversity and put the emphasis on ecological research even more.

Although the importance of ecological assessments and long-term studies is needed, the field is heavily underfunded. There is a crucial need to invest in understanding our ecosystems and their biodiversity, to better evaluate this situation in the future.

We have one planet, which we share with an incredible and beautiful diversity of living organisms. Many of these organisms were here long before we came along, and many will remain when we are gone. However, we, humankind, are degrading our shared home at an unprecedented rate. We have an important responsibility: we need to look into sustainable avenues to protect the living organisms that inhabit it. And to do this, knowledge is key.

Follow the Biogeoscience Institute along with other Research Stations on Instagram at @ucalgaryresearch


UCalgary resources on COVID-19

For the most up-to-date information about the University of Calgary's response to the spread of COVID-19, visit the UCalgary COVID-19 Response website.