Conserving Habitat During a Pandemic

Ducks Unlimited staff find creative solutions to keep important water projects on track

Crews work on the Gray Lodge Water Supply Project in California during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ducks Unlimited (DU) conservation staff based on the West Coast have remained laser-focused during the COVID-19 crisis to keep large habitat and water infrastructure projects on schedule, despite challenges presented by the worldwide pandemic.

In California’s Sacramento Valley, Ducks Unlimited and partners are following guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as state and local officials, to forestall any delays to the Gray Lodge Water Supply Project. This $52 million project will eventually modernize the water canals of the Biggs-West Gridley Water District, resulting in a more efficient water supply for the wildlife, farmers, and people of Butte County.

“We’ve been able to keep this moving forward because it’s considered essential to the region by providing water to agriculture and to Gray Lodge Wildlife Area,” said DU Biologist John Ranlett, head of endangered species-related environmental compliance for this project. “Construction crews and biological monitors are in the field daily utilizing the appropriate personal protective equipment and maintaining social distancing guidelines to get this important work done.”

Ducks Unlimited is unique among conservation organizations due to its ability to deliver large-scale, on-the-ground habitat improvements. DU averages more than 250,000 acres of wetlands enhancement, restoration or protection annually, and has conserved more than 14.5 million acres across North America since 1937.

Achieving that success takes year-round planning. A disruption in any part of that work cycle has a domino effect on conservation projects, which could harm efforts to improve waterfowl habitat and water quality.

In the Pacific Northwest, DU’s team was days from moving into a new office in Vancouver, Wash., when the shelter-in-place order was given. Since most of their belongings were already in moving boxes, staff adapted quickly to working from home and have kept important conservation projects moving without delay. They have even made it a priority to connect with each other for weekly support.

“We get together as an office every Thursday afternoon on Microsoft Teams to see how people are doing,” says DU Senior Regional Engineer Steve Liske, who estimates as much as 75 percent of the Vancouver office checks in every week. “It’s a bit about work and a bit to see how everyone is faring. It’s just good to see the faces and hear the voices of everyone that you’ve built relationships with over the years and make sure they’re all doing okay.”

In addition to following standard safety protocols, DU staff has cut down on meetings and travel, taking advantage of technology to supplement in-person visits. Amelia Raquel is a Ducks Unlimited biologist covering Northeast California and Nevada and has seen the biggest change in the miles she normally logs.

“I cover such a large geographic area that I’m typically on the road about 40 percent of the time meeting with partners and looking at projects,” said Raquel. “With travel restrictions in place and the guidance to avoid gatherings, I have been spending a lot of time on office work. But I think we’re all adapting really well to the changes and still making a difference on the ground.”