June 01, 2020
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Pandemic having minimal impact on state wildlife research

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
This photo taken Feb. 27, 2019, shows one of the bear cubs hanging onto the shoulder of wildlife biologist Randy Cross as the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife team conducts a den visit in Edinburg, Maine.

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As many Mainers struggle to figure out how to work from home and adhere to social distancing guidelines while still getting their jobs done, the state’s wildlife biologists have largely been able to complete field research projects with only slight adjustments, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s wildlife division director.

“We’re extremely fortunate in the sense that so much of our work is dispersed out on the landscape, in some of the more rural parts of the state where there typically, aren’t a lot of people or at least a large congregation of people,” Nate Webb said. “A lot of our work — at least our fieldwork — is done either solo or in pairs in a way that is really minimally impacted by the state of emergency.”

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

The DIF&W conducts a number of long-term studies, including field research on black bears, moose, deer, wild turkeys and endangered shore birds. Webb said that for now, department biologists have not found the restrictions to be a barrier.

The state’s bear crew finished up its annual den visits last week, and though some of those visits have traditionally included “guests” who get to tag along with the researchers, fewer of those visits were scheduled this year for a few reasons. The crew leader, Randy Cross, retired in 2019, and the department wanted to give the newly formulated team time to work closely and learn their routine together, without outside distractions, Webb said.

Another high-profile project involves the capture and GPS-collaring of moose, using helicopters. That work was finished in January, and the second phase of that work doesn’t involve much face-to-face contact by biologists.

The study aims to learn the winter survival rate of the state’s moose in different Wildlife Management Districts, and to determine the cause of those moose deaths if possible. The GPS collars send a signal back to researchers if a moose has stopped moving for a significant period of time, and biologists are then scrambled to the site to see what caused the moose’s death.

“[Biologists are] monitoring and [doing] mortality investigation and that’s done in pairs anyway,” Webb said. “The only change there is now, and we did this to some extent anyway, is we take two trucks. And we’re just mindful of interactions between staff in the field.”

Similarly, the capture of wild turkeys, which are fitted with radio collars, was completed before the global pandemic took hold, and biologists have moved on to monitoring them with telemetry equipment.

And deer capturing efforts have also wrapped up, as that six-year project on the health of the herd continues nearly unabated.

“The peak of COVID-19 response has come at the tail end of our capture season,” said state deer biologist Nathan Bieber. “We shortened our season by a week for this and other reasons, so the impact on our deer study was minimal. I intend to conduct one more field season with a small crew in one study site only.”

Bieber said that he’s been working primarily from home, and he said he regrets that he hasn’t been able to offer direct customer service to those who try to contact him at the office.

Also on the docket for biologists is deciding how many any-deer permits to issue for this fall. Those permits allow a hunter to shoot deer that are not bucks, and help the department reach management goals for each district.

Bieber said meetings that typically involve many biologists at one location to discuss the any-deer permits will be held via computer conferencing software instead.

Some species may actually have been aided due to the new social distancing rules, Webb said.

The state’s endangered shore birds, the piping plover and least tern, are often at risk due to heavy human activity at the state’s beaches. That’s not the case now, and those birds may benefit.

According to the DIF&W’s website, biologists regularly monitor the population and productivity of the species; a combination of DIF&W staffers monitor nests, deter dogs and try to educate the public on ways people can keep the shore birds safe.

“Some of the beach closures [in southern Maine], in some ways, have made managing the human use easier for this time frame,” Webb said.

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