• IKEA, a Tree Canada sponsor, provides volunteers at a tree planting event in spring 2019. (Photo: Tree Canada)

Every spring, conservation experts and volunteers from around the world burst into action to help keep prairie lands, forests and other ecosystems in shape. During the COVID-19 pandemic however, the same conservation efforts can’t be done under physical distancing guidelines, leaving trees unplanted, shorelines full of plastic and ground unturned. 

“This is the time of year our science staff and conservation biologists are usually going out, doing property monitoring and removing invasive species,” says Andrew Holland with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC). “Now that is halted.”

Most conservation organizations have had to cancel their events, which are primarily staffed by volunteers — the NCC alone runs more than 300 events across the country each year, from bird inventories to shoreline clean-ups. Tree Canada has shifted corporate sponsorship for tree planting events to the fall and has extended community tree grants for almost a full year. 

Other organizations have adapted their conservation efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cumberland Community Forests Society (CCFS), for example, has expanded its strategy, purchasing 91 hectares on Vancouver Island after raising more than $2 million. 

Meaghan Cursons, executive director for CCFS, says they believe protecting nature is a “political priority.”

“This crisis has offered us the opportunity to shift how we think about land use, energy production, urban development and drinking water protection,” she says. “This pause has offered us the chance to see how nature provides us with incredible ecological services.”

Volunteers are crucial to tree planting events. Under physical distancing guidelines, many events have been cancelled.
(Photo: Essex Region Conservation)

Some resource teams with Parks Canada are also still working, analyzing completed projects and planning future ones, despite the closure of all national parks and historic sites across the country.

“Parks Canada is also reviewing and making contingency plans for field projects that may have been temporarily suspended, and those that could be,” says Megan Damini, media relations for Parks Canada. 

As the federal and provincial governments start to consider how to reopen the economy, conservation groups are also looking ahead to post-pandemic works. Tree Canada says they expect to be busy when they’re able to get back to work, and the NCC agrees getting the work done when physical distancing guidelines are lifted will result in a huge effort. 

“Whenever we get the green light to return to these areas, we’re really going to have to double down to do this stewardship,” says Holland. “Our stewardship coordinators will have to prioritize the areas they need to go to.”

Wildlife conservation efforts also affected 

Wildlife conservation is also being deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizations such as Wildlife Preservation Canada (WPC) are working to balance the care of their animals — like reintroducing species to habitats, translocation and conservation breeding — with keeping their staff safe. 

“This is something we’ve never seen as an organization,” says Sarah Matheson, fundraising and communications manager for WPC. “We have a lot of animals to care for and we have conservation programs that require us to continue. We can’t just put a hold on it and hunker down in our homes to ride it out.” 

The native pollinator team at Wildlife Preservation Canada surveys for bumblebees. (Photo: V. MacPhail/Wildlife Preservation Canada)

In order to continue operations, staff at WPC have implemented social distancing through shift work instead of the entire staff coming to work every day. Facility managers divide and conquer to properly care for, feed, and clean the animals. 

Although conservation efforts are ongoing at WPC, Matheson says the organization is no longer able to engage with community volunteers in person. 

Every summer, WPC releases animals like birds, frogs, and turtles back into the wild with the assistance of community members. This crucial piece of community outreach is no longer safe under COVID-19 conditions. 

“People lose the connection of why conservation is so important,” says Matheson. “When you’re actually out in the field and you’re holding a turtle in your hand, knowing you’re sending it off for its best chance at success, it becomes something emotional.”

Matheson says that emotional connection is what makes people feel so strongly about conservation efforts. 

Conservation efforts at home

Even though large-scale events can’t take place, groups say people can still help out at home, whether that involves planting a tree or providing a safe haven for birds.

“There are a lot of things you can do to make your backyard bird-friendly, like plant native plants and remove invasive species,” says Holland. “You can become a backyard biologist.”

Tree Canada has offered tree seed kits and tree seedlings for citizens’ backyards wherever possible. And beginning May 1, WPC will launch a virtual learning series in the hopes of keeping the emotional connection to wildlife conservation alive. 

Still, conservation experts say there is no way to judge the long term effects of the delays.