As theyve done each morning since late March, longtime friends Les Morgenstern and Brad Karel wake up in their camper trailers in southwest Minnesota, cook breakfast on a stove and get ready for their day.

Morgenstern and Karel arent leisurely recreating. Their campsite at Talcot Lake Wildlife Management Area is their new, temporary base of operations and a creative solution for executing vital engineering work on Ducks Unlimited conservation projects during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This traditionally is the season we do most of our project mapping and topographical survey work, and this way were not subjecting ourselves to the hotel rooms and the risk, said Karel, manager of conservation services for DUs Great Lakes/Atlantic Region.

Temporary housing for DU engineering staff in Minnesota.

What makes Ducks Unlimited unique among conservation organizations is its ability to deliver large-scale, on-the-ground habitat improvements across the country. 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. The current global pandemic has forced DUs staff to take extra precautions to keep projects on schedule.

We are staying engaged as much as we can considering the circumstances, said Bruce Toay, conservation programs manager for South Dakota.

As we roll into spring and early summer, local landowners are still operating as normal. Crops are going in the ground. We are still working with ag producers to improve their management practices that are beneficial to their livelihoods, for wetlands and waterfowl habitat, Toay said.

Staff are following guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Most are working from home and video conferencing like most of America. But you cant physically rebuild a 1,000-acre wetland or prairie from a kitchen table.

Michael Baker, director of engineering for DUs Great Lakes/Atlantic Region, said DU is making sure staff remain safe on the landscape.

Nobody has to go out if they dont want to or arent comfortable doing it. We put health and safety above everything else, Baker said. But theres a big desire by field staff to keep things moving. Everybody is approaching it very reasonably and thinking of the greater good.

Keith Wesley is DUs senior engineering technician for Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. He and his partner, Engineering Technician Jacob Cormier, plan ahead to avoid people and virus exposure.

Weve taken home all of our equipment and dont even go into the office. We go right from home to the job site, Wesley said.

Wesley and Cormier stick to day trips to avoid hotels. Since DU field staff cover large areas, those day trips easily stretch to 14 hours or longer. But they know what happens if they dont get to their site.

If I cant get stakes in the ground, our contractors are going to struggle to build our project, he said. If Im not there, I cant check the project and tell them they are good.

Keith Wesley and Jacob Cormier stay safe while working in Texas.

Morgenstern and Karel have several projects 450 miles from their house, so day trips arent practical. They normally live in hotels during April while they survey. Sticking to their northern state roots, they leased a pair of mobile ice fishing house campers that were just pulled off frozen lakes for the season.

Strong partnerships with other organizations also make new challenges easy to conquer.

We are able to do what we do because of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which provided us with a special use permit to park these trailers where they are, Morgenstern said. This really fit as an alternative, so here we are. It is a team effort, were just one piece of the solution.