Combatting COVID-19

Taking A Walk on the Wild Side — Safely

How Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge changed its management strategy to keep people safe on refuge lands

By Dana Bivens, a Public Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge has four miles of trails including an estuary board walk. Photo credit: USFWS.

Glynnis Nakai, Project Leader at Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, never thought she would be managing a popular urban refuge during a global pandemic. As COVID-19 cases began to rise early in 2020, everything changed. Glynnis and her staff had to react, adapt, and strategize ways to keep employees and the community healthy while still maintaining the refuge and its natural resources for the public.

Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1974 to protect dwindling estuary habitat along the Puget Sound. Estuaries are areas where saltwater from the sea mixes with fresh water from rivers and streams emptying into the ocean. These unique ecological regions provide important habitat for many terrestrial and aquatic species. In the Puget Sound, the refuge offers some of the last remaining wild space for plants and animals that have suffered from habitat loss in the Seattle metro area.

Left: Geese on the refuge. Photo credit: M. Schramm. Center: Mt. Rainer from the refuge. Photo credit: John Whitehead/USFWS. Right: Refuge meadow. Photo credit: John Whitehead/USFWS.

Its proximity to densely populated areas makes Nisqually a popular destination for many local residents who want to escape the hustle and bustle of urban life. Visitors can enjoy bird watching, wildlife photography, hiking, environmental education, fishing and hunting without travelling too far from the city. In March of 2020, when the state of Washington began to issue stay-at-home orders and closed schools, Glynnis and her staff were forced to adapt their way of doing things to keep the public safe while maintaining the refuge for the plants, animals and visitors who depended on this vital habitat.

From March 25th to June 8th the refuge was closed to the public per local health guidelines. Glynnis capitalized on the pause, using the time to benefit the refuge. Staff began teleworking with the goal of completing some of the many projects on their to-do lists that tended to fall to the backburner when field work or visitor services took priority. The refuge’s maintenance worker, Bob Smith, was able to conduct necessary repairs and renovations to the visitor center and office buildings while they were unused. Glynnis used this time to think ahead and strategize how she and her staff could make the refuge accessible while keeping the community safe.

On June 8th the refuge opened its four miles of trails to visitors to allow for safe outdoor recreation. As guests returned so did visitor services staff, but by staggering schedules and rotating shifts, leadership was able to keep the number of workers indoors at a minimum. Staff were also sent out in refuge vehicles along the trails so they could be available to answer questions or assist the public in a safe and socially distanced manner.

Sign with Covid-19 safety information at a trail entrance
Staff placed COVID-19 information at trail heads to promote safe social distancing while recreating. Photo credit: USFWS.

One challenge Glynnis faced was that as the trails were open to the public, they began to see new visitors to the refuge. Many community members were searching for a healthy and safe place to recreate, and public lands offered this sanctuary. The refuge was always popular but now it became even more crowded, presenting a new challenge to staff: how do we keep numbers at a level where visitors are safe while maximizing the ability to provide recreational opportunities?

To promote social distancing and other precautions, Glynnis and her staff posted signs with information about COVID-19 safety in public areas, limited parking to ensure the refuge did not become overcrowded and kept restrooms and the visitors center closed to minimize risks for employees. As the main parking lot filled, staff would often find vehicles parked along the entrance road or in the undesignated grass margins of the parking areas, so they created temporary no parking signs to prevent this from occurring. These efforts helped keep visitor numbers at a manageable level for the narrow boardwalks and trails.

Left: Visitors seen climbing the refuge gate to enter. Right: Staff created additional no parking signs to prevent parking in undesignated areas and overcrowding. Photo credit: USFWS.

Nisqually has an amazing environmental education program that was also impacted by COVID-19. Before the pandemic, schools would bring students to the refuge on field trips, and they would spend the day learning about local habitats and wildlife. The classes would visit the educational center where volunteers and staff would teach them about the wildlife found along the refuge trails. They could touch bird feathers, inspect animal bones, learn about animal adaptions and hone their observation skills. In addition to the classroom experience, educators would lead the kids out on the refuge trails and try to identify some of animal and plant life they learned about in the educational center. This popular trip was a regular part of many local school curriculums.

Green buidling on the refuge
Refuge educational center where, prior to the pandemic, hosted classes and taught kids about refuge wildlife. Now many of these programs are offered virtually. Photo credit: David Patte/USFWS.

As the pandemic forced children into distanced learning, Glynnis and her team worked to bring the refuge educational program to teachers who were now trying to engage children from afar. Davy Clark, the refuge’s Education Program Manager created virtual field trips, virtual lessons, and in collaboration with partners, created learning aids designed to meet teachers’ curriculum. For example, staff collected invertebrates and preserved specimens in resin so teachers could send them to students for close-up study while they went through the accompanying class material. The staff also created a new learning tool for teachers to share with students called “Exploring the Nisqually Watershed.” This educational series included virtual lessons and interactive components to help educators keep kids engaged and learning in a remote environment.

As stay at home orders relaxed and some schools returned to in-class teaching, the refuge staff tried to provide additional educational options for visiting students. They created a self-guided field trip that teachers could lead themselves. The refuge provided resources including handouts and information about wildlife prior to the trip. The teachers could go over the information with the students and then head to the refuge. When school groups arrived, they found sanitized binoculars and maps so they could explore the trails and search for wildlife. Although not yet able to directly interact with the school groups, by creating a combination of virtual and self-guided learning materials, Nisqually staff provided options for a variety of situations that supported environmental education, teachers and students who were also finding new ways of learning in the pandemic world.

Chorus frogs, river otters and rufous hummingbirds are some of the many species of wildlife that refuge visitors may see. Photo credits from left to right: Pacific Chorus frogs by John Keith. River Otter by Michael Schramm/USFWS. Rufous hummingbird by I’ina Van Lawick.

As the 2021 fall school term nears, there is still a lot of uncertainty about COVID-19 across the United States. Glynnis and her team have learned that the most important skill to have in this time is to be adaptable and prepared to change course as new information arises. Finding ways to repurpose what they do and still bring activities and information to the public is the goal and this creativity has proven to be successful. Some new COVID-safe options include setting up tents for outdoor events for school groups, giving interpretative talks in the amphitheater instead of in the learning center, and continuing to create virtual curriculum materials for students and teachers. When the visitor center does open, rules such as mask wearing, limited capacity and social distancing will be upheld to keep visitors, volunteers and staff safe. By working together we can combat this pandemic and forge a new normal in the post COVID-19 world where creativity and adaptability guide our path forward.

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Conservation stories from one of the world’s most ecologically diverse regions.

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Conservation stories from one of the world’s most ecologically diverse regions.

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