Alpine forget-me-not (Myosotis alpestris) spotted by Chrystal on a walk near Whitehorse, YT., Chrystal Mantyka-Pringle
Alpine forget-me-not (Myosotis alpestris) spotted by Chrystal on a walk near Whitehorse, YT. © Chrystal Mantyka-Pringle

Taking different paths: How WCS Canada scientists have adapted to the challenges of COVID 19


Contact

Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne
Director of Key Biodiversity Areas

Chrystal Mantyka-Pringle
Co-Director, Northern Boreal Mountains Program

Stephen Insley
 Director of Arctic Conservation

Related

One Health

Published

2020-08-24

Current circumstances have required both adopting some creative solutions and simply accepting that some field work is not going to happen this summer.

By Jaime Grimm

This summer has been unusual to say the least. It has been lonely and frustrating as we all cope with the global pandemic as best we can. But it has also been thought-provoking, reflective and even inspiring at times as people come together to respond to a common threat.

Our team at WCS Canada is spread out across the country. Usually, at this time of year, many of our scientists would be deep into their field seasons, monitoring bird migrations in Yukon, tracking the movements of ancient sturgeon in Ontario, and joining with community partners to listen to whale sounds in the western Arctic. But current circumstances have required both adopting some creative solutions and simply accepting that some field work is not going to happen this summer.

We decided to check in with a few of our scientists to get a glimpse into their new normal and how they are adapting to current (and ever changing) conditions.

Many of our scientists have the advantage of being well accustomed to remote working conditions, often being in the field for long stretches. For wildlife technician Jacob Seguin, home is relative – he probably spends as much time in the field, tagging sturgeon in summer and tracking wolverines in winter, as he does in his Thunder Bay home. Even when he is at home, he lives a pretty unplugged life with no internet access, meaning that during the current COVID-19 crisis he has tried to strike a balance between not getting caught up in daily news and staying responsibly informed.

For others, being at home isn’t so unusual, but the pandemic has brought new challenges. Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne coordinates our national Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) project from her home office in Montreal, which she now shares with two school-age children and her partner. This spring, she had planned on facilitating a series of regional workshops with biodiversity experts and knowledge-holders across the country. With in-person workshops necessarily on hold, she is continuing to coordinate and adapt plans for the KBA initiative from home, while also teaching and caring for her kids and being preoccupied by world events. Ciara observed that many scientists are currently more removed from their institutions than usual, and hopes we’re using this time to reflect and to take in new perspectives.

With the COVID-19 crisis and renewed urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement highlighting the existing inequities in our society, she feels that it’s not a bad thing that the Canadian conservation community has been forced to sit, learn and reflect about what it is like to be a Black scientist in a field that is very white. She highlights watching a stream of tweets pour across her screen during Black Birders Week, an evocative and energizing reminder of the diversity of compelling voices out there.

Ciara herself has been occasionally escaping her suddenly crowded home and schedule to find moments for herself through birding – as a new birder, she recently saw her first brown thrasher in an urban cemetery. Chrystal Mantyka-Pringle has also found glimpses of light in nature. For her, living in Yukon with access to outdoor spaces is a privilege, recognizing that many other people don’t have anywhere near the same opportunity to access nature. Watching tree swallows nest in her backyard was a sign of hope, as was finding wood frogs with her daughters at a nearby beaver pond.

Of course, any scientist is going to be worried about equipment left in the field, unfinished work that has to be put on hold and just not “being there”. For Steve Insley, that means audio recorders left in the Arctic Ocean to record whale and seal calls and other sounds over the long Arctic winter. By now, Steve should be well underway with the task of retrieving these devices, deploying new ones and starting to dig into the treasure trove of data they contain. But that will have to wait while he crosses his fingers that the recorders’ batteries will not die before field work can resume. Meanwhile, he is coordinating virtually with community partners who might be able to retrieve some recorders deployed closer to shore.

Steve is also trying to not think about the hours of work that went into prepping and getting permits for a new study of marine birds and climate change that has now been grounded by COVID-19. He knows the work is vital to helping understand a changing Arctic, but is concerned about the future of this project and whether it will be possible to pick things up where they left off. As we are all too well aware these days, uncertainty can be just as difficult to deal with as bad news.

Keeping in touch with community partners is a vital part of our scientists’ work even if they can’t meet face to face. WCS Canada has been working with communities in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region on a study of seal diet and health and Steve mentions that community members are continuing the work. While he’d love to be there with them, he is also pleased that monitoring is continuing.

Chrystal says as the COVID-19 situation eases in Yukon, she is looking forward to revisiting the communities she works with. Being able to spend time with First Nations on the land is such an important part of her work, she says, adding that visiting and sharing a meal together is a valuable way to continue to build relationships and to continue learning.

For Jacob, his connection to home is his church, and while this community of friends are used to Jacob being absent for long stretches, it is a change for Jacob to be home and not able to connect in person. Instead, he has spent more time fishing, including being a good Samaritan and rescuing two stranded fishermen while struggling to maintain physical distancing between two small bobbing boats.

Requirements for physical distancing have led Jacob to spend a lot more time fishing with his side-kick, JD. Photo: Jacob Seguin

The need to “stay home, stay safe” has also brought about another kind of connection opportunity – the chance to draw family ties tighter. For Steve, having a couple of teenage boys stranded in the house was an opportunity to tighten bonds that were slowly loosening, “They had to interact with the family in person and not on Snapchat,” Steve laughs. Virtual schooling went from being something put together on the fly for keeping the boys engaged, into a formal school program that both boys dived into. The family even celebrated the end of the school year with a 12 pack of KD and a big box of popcorn.

Chrystal, meanwhile, took the opportunity to put her two young daughters to work. A remote camera study to assess key wildlife areas for species like grizzly bears would normally have relied on post-docs or field assistants to help with camera placement. Instead Chrystal’s kids were the first technicians on the scene. The girls helped adjust the cameras on the trees to get the best angle and ensure they would capture good wildlife images. Chrystal and the kids then tested this by pretending to be a caribou or a bear. Not only was it a fun way to spend time together, it also helped her youngest understand that mom did more than “save trees and play on her computer.”

School closures for Chrystal’s family has meant a lot of outdoor learning – both for the kids and for Chrystal herself. Having only lived in Yukon for just over a year, it has been a chance to learn more about local wildlife and native plants, and ultimately, Chrystal says, is making her a better biologist.

For everyone, one of the biggest lessons of the COVID crisis was the importance of having a strong connection with nature. Like so many people, they found that connection a vital way to stay positive and to find hope in the face of bleak news and challenging restrictions. In fact, all are hopeful that one of the biggest takeaways from the current crisis will be a broader recognition of how much we rely on nature and how much more we need to do to protect it.

Chrystal says she hopes people will realize that we’re reliant on our ecosystems and that it is not just COVID-19 that is a problem, but the ongoing climate and biodiversity crises as well. She hopes people will wake up and realize that these problems are not going away with a vaccine and that our kids and grandkids will face the same challenges, or worse, if we do not change course. Ciara echoes Chrystal’s thoughts, and adds that she hopes that humanity might have a greater appreciation for all the beautiful things in life – human connections, wilderness, animals, plants, fungus, music, art, time and the wisdom of elders.

What happens post COVID? For Ciara, the answer is simple: “Hug everybody! Literally everybody. People I meet on the streets. Take the time to have conversations and hug.”

But just as importantly, seize the opportunity for change. As Steve points out, the COVID-19 crisis has provoked an amazing global response. It has been really heartening to see how rapidly things can happen when the need and push is there. “Hopefully we can take this momentum and roll it over to the climate and biodiversity crises.”

A year like no other

A year like no other

It has been a challenging year, to say the least.
Justina Ray

Animals take to the streets

Animals take to the streets

While people have retreated inside their homes, animals have taken to the streets in cities throughout the world. 
Justina Ray