Social distancing for wildlife, please

Outdoor photographers urge humans not to get too close to local wildlife.

By Steve Hubrecht

In recent days there’s been more time to pause, more time to spend reflecting, and more time to get outside into nature on your own. Of course, none of this is by choice: it’s because of necessary self-isolation, social distancing and even quarantine in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Still, you can think of it as a silver lining in terms of connecting with nature (albeit not in the national parks or deep in the backcountry, in a quiet, mindful way.

However, a pair of ardent Columbia Valley outdoor photographers are sounding a note of caution, urging humans to take care when out enjoying the great outdoors, not to get too close to local wildlife. In other words, social distancing for animals as well as people, please.

Local photographer and Wilmer resident Pat Morrow sent the Pioneer a recent image of a couple out walking on frozen stretches of the Columbia River Wetlands, clearly having a great time and eager to get better views of swans and other waterfowl, but unfortunately disturbing the birds as a result.

“The folks and their unleashed dog in this photo, determined to get closer to nature, strode cavalierly toward the resting birds until every single one of them flew on to the next safe haven. This unwitting act is repeated thousands of times every day, across the globe. A month ago, I saw several fat-tired bicyclists riding along the same stretch of frozen pond, enjoying their own company, blissfully unaware as a frightened herd of elk and white tail deer fled through the cottonwood trees behind them,” said Morrow. “If we expect to be nurtured by nature, let’s learn to treat her with the respect she deserves and all else will fall into place.”

The Columbia River Wetlands, where the photo was taken, is a designated RAMSAR wetland of international importance, and one of the largest intact wetlands on the continent, reaching 180 kilometres from Canal Flats to Donald (north of Golden) and covering 26,000 hectares. The wetlands are quite biodiverse, encompassing 16 habitat types (such as marshes, open waters, shrub levees and floodplain forest). They shelter elk, deer, wolves, cougars, grizzly bears, fish, amphibians, insects, more than 260 bird species and nearly 40 threatened animal and plant species. Of course, wildlife are no less sensitive in the many other landscapes throughout the Columbia Valley.

“When it comes to social distancing, the current paradigm (related to the pandemic) is to limit our proximity to each other to protect the health of our fellow human beings,” said Morrow. “However, when considering the need to physically distance ourselves from vulnerable wildlife, such as the hundreds of exhausted transient waterfowl and shore birds that had just landed to get a much-needed break in the Columbia Valley wetlands, we must bear in mind that, according to the World Wildlife Fund, global wildlife populations have declined by 60 per cent in just a bit more than 40 years due to habitat loss and human intervention.”

Morrow’s sentiments were echoed by retired Parks Canada biologist and Invermere photographer Ross MacDonald, who told the Pioneer that “not all habitat is created equal. Animals move between peak habitats, often on a seasonal basis, it is a matter of survival for them. In early spring we see migratory birds seeking open water for food and protection. Some species, such as the swans in Pat’s photo, seek shallow water at ice edges for food and humans can easily drive them from this prime habitat, causing stress for the animal. Too many stressors and the animals may not reproduce or even survive.”

MacDonald explained that owing to decades of habitat fragmentation and myriad other factors, many species in the Columbia Valley are already stressed, and humans need to do what they can to reduce pressure, saying that “I am hoping that people use this opportunity with the pandemic to reconnect with nature, but also recognize that we are sharing that nature with a lot of other species.”

So how do you enjoy the Columbia Valley’s wildlife without disturbing them?

MacDonald recommends using common sense and giving the animals space, or if you want a to see things more intimate details, using a pair of binoculars.

“It’s (using binoculars) a great way to keep a respectful distance and still get a great view,” he said.

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