On March 12, an estimated 541,000 sandhill cranes were nestled along the Platte River Valley near Kearney, Nebraska. Nearby, hundreds of people huddled in riverside blinds with cameras and binoculars to watch as the birds stretched out their slender necks and showed off their red foreheads and penetrating orange eyes. Over the next month, the birds would continue to migrate along the Platte, eventually representing about 80 percent of the world’s sandhill crane population and the entire native population of the endangered whooping crane.
The crowds of tourists were just a start. In a normal year, about 40,000 people travel to Kearney between March and April to join popular crane festivals — a tradition that stretches back to the 1970s. “This migration is completely magnificent,” said Bill Taddicken, director of Rowe Sanctuary, a National Audubon Society refuge that contains protected crane migration grounds. “It’s something people have never seen before so it can create a very emotional tie.”
But on March 13, Rowe Sanctuary shut down due to the spread of COVID-19, canceling its tours and closing all trails. Other private crane viewing areas did the same. Soon, the only people passing through Kearney were visitors from nearby towns on quick driving tours near the Platte. The visitors couldn’t buy meals because many restaurants were shuttered. Most campgrounds were closed and few day-trippers risked getting hotel rooms. Overall, the town lost around $10 million in business from the crane tourists. Conservation groups also took big hits.
In March, “it’s not just the migration of wildlife, but it’s also the migration of people who help fund our nonprofit,” said Brice Krohn, president of the Crane Trust, a conservation group focused on protecting and maintaining the habitat on the Platte River.
Both the Crane Trust and Rowe Sanctuary largely depend on tourists and donors for funding — money that pays for habitat restoration on the river, which has been significantly depleted over the last half-century by farms and cities that divert its water and is now mostly unsuitable as crane habitat. “We do as much as we can to let people know the issues on the Platte River, and how critical it is that our work continues,” said Taddicken. The goal, he added, is to make sure the “migration has a future and the Platte River has a future.”
Rowe Sanctuary usually makes about $300,000 — around a third of its annual budget — on tours and gift shop sales, plus additional funds from donations that are inspired by in-person visits. Most of that money won’t come in this year. The Crane Trust lost about $500,000, roughly a quarter of its normal operating budget.
The problem is global. Across North America, Africa, and elsewhere, conservation efforts that keep delicate ecosystems in check are struggling as the COVID-19 pandemic keeps many people confined to their homes. There are no tourists, who help fund a range of projects. Volunteers and employees aren’t able to plant trees or remove invasive species, while wildlife rehabilitation centers struggle to keep their doors open. Some programs require large crews that can’t practice social distancing on the job, while many others, like the Platte River restoration, rely on the money brought in from tourism or activity fees to function.
Conservation efforts have long had to contend with occasional booms and busts in the industry, but unlike any other event before it, the pandemic has laid bare the weaknesses of the economic cogs that support certain ecosystems. “We’ve kind of got a perfect storm,” said Catherine Semcer, a research fellow for both the U.S.-based Property and Environmental Research Center and the African Wildlife Economy Institute. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Semcer has followed the ways that the global shut down has affected conservation, particularly in Africa.
For many conservation efforts, the sudden loss in income will be a major setback for the coming year. Other groups say that the pandemic could cause permanent damage. As for Rowe Sanctuary, Taddicken still isn’t sure what the pandemic’s final impact will be. The sanctuary may have to cut back on some of their river clearing work this year, but his big worry is losing the incremental progress built into the habitat over decades. It would only take a few years without habitat management for the carefully managed river channels and meadows to revert to a state unsuitable for cranes.
“You definitely don’t want to go backwards in maintaining the river,” he said. “And if it gets too bad and we don’t get the work we need to get done, we could go backwards.”
For tens of thousands, if not millions, of years, what is now Nebraska has been a magnet for crane migration, with the Platte providing safety and food along the birds’ long journey as they move from Texas and Mexico as far as Siberia to nest. But starting in the 19th century, farms encroached on the wet meadows that provided such abundance for the cranes and pulled water from the river to irrigate their crops. Around the same time, cities upstream began drawing from the Platte to create dams and reservoirs.
Invasive species like the common reed, which was introduced from Europe for erosion control, began to clog river channels and overtake habitat for native species. About 70 percent of the water that traditionally flowed through the Platte is diverted for other uses today. The flushing flows that once cleared away sediment and vegetation along the Platte slowed down and, over time, the river’s characteristic wide channels were reduced to trickles. As wetlands disappeared, migrating waterfowl packed onto smaller chunks of land, triggering outbreaks of avian cholera that killed thousands of birds at a time. Naturalists started to notice declines in crane species, particularly whooping cranes, as early as the 1940s.
Birding and conservation groups got involved after the whooping crane became one of the first species on the federal endangered species list in 1967. Audubon purchased its first piece of land on the Platte River in 1974 and the Crane Trust formed in 1978. Hunting groups, interested in bolstering waterfowl populations, got involved in wetland conservation around the same time. Ever since, these groups have worked to recreate the wide river channels and protected sandbars that draw cranes and protect the few remaining wet meadows.
Today, nongovernmental organizations and government agencies manage about half of the 80-mile stretch of river that supports bird migration, an area known as the central flyway. In 2007 a multi-state agreement went into place to ensure that a certain level of water reaches the migration grounds every year. Combined, these efforts to keep the habitat from succumbing to the invasive species and lack of water cost roughly $8 million every year.
“It’s an expensive proposition, managing grasslands and river channel and wetlands,” Taddicken said. “If we weren’t continuing to do this, probably within three to five years, we would lose all of this habitat.”
To help pay for the upkeep, the conservation efforts largely depend on the annual crane migration. Campsites and hotels fill up. Tours shuffle in and out of riverside blinds during peak viewing times, while other groups gather on bridges over the water. Entrance to a blind costs about $40 per person, while overnight or specialty tours can run as much as $600. The Crane Trust hosts overnight wildlife tours — one of their main fundraisers. And Audubon and other NGOs bring in donations from awestruck viewers who feel moved to protect the cranes. According to Taddicken, many people who watch the migration become repeat donors and visitors.
Even groups that rely less on tourism have suffered. Thanks to COVID-19, Ducks Unlimited, a hunting group that manages wetlands on the river, had to cancel all upcoming banquets, which help raise money for habitat management. Some of the organization’s donors have deferred their payments, while some of the foundations that typically provide grants have shifted focus to supporting public health initiatives instead of the environment.
The local economy is suffering, too. According to Roger Jasnoch with the Kearney Visitors Bureau, the crane migration brings in some $14 million to the Kearney area each year. Since the COVID-19 shutdowns, the visitors center, which is funded through hotel occupation and lodging taxes, has seen its income decline 80 percent.
“The cranes are a big deal for us,” Jasnoch said. “March is without a doubt the busiest month.”
While the Platte River will take a hit this year, most conservation groups can fall back on donations and other funding sources to complete some of their work. Officials at Rowe Sanctuary, for instance, are working to balance the budget to keep the staff on payroll and to complete as much habitat restoration as possible. Other programs don’t have such resilient funding sources.
In parts of Africa, money from safaris and trophy hunting funds conservation almost entirely. Without this money, countries like Botswana are seeing upticks in poaching as they struggle to fund anti-poaching units and to monitor areas where tourists once roamed.
Wildlife rehabilitation centers worldwide are also struggling as their visitor bases have dried up, eliminating an important funding source for many facilities. In the U.S. the decline comes at a crucial moment. For instance, the Lindsay Wildlife Experience, a large wildlife hospital, education center, and museum northeast of San Francisco, California, had to close all of its public facilities and education programs, which bring in about $150,000 a month to help pay for wildlife rehabilitation. The center shut down at the beginning of spring, peak baby animal season, when the facility is typically inundated with injured newborn birds and small mammals.
To help, the group created a donation campaign on their website to raise $250,000 by June 30. “We had to cancel all the events, refund money to schools. If we are closed for two months, we are going to lose $300,000 of earned income,” said Holly Million, Lindsay Wildlife’s development director. Of the campaign, she said, “This is keeping us in operation.”
While the lack of tourists has caused funding issues for many conservation projects, other places have had to contend with too many eager visitors. At the end of March, crowds surged at some National Parks that remained open, forcing closures at many parks including Yellowstone, Shenandoah, and Rocky Mountain. The crowding not only violated social distancing requirements, but also led to a rise in vandalism and trail damage in some parks.
“All of the sudden people have started multiplying in the outdoors,” said Ann Baker Easley, the CEO of Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, which coordinates volunteers for trail maintenance — helping to keep hikers from trampling sensitive habitat — and ecological rehabilitation. According to Baker, many Colorado parks have grown crowded and eager hikers have begun walking off trails in an attempt to socially distance.
Even as the need for trail maintenance by groups like VOC has risen, social distancing requirements have limited the ability of crews to work. The organization had to furlough half of its staff and cancel all upcoming projects through the end of June, including time-sensitive habitat work like planting trees, which can only happen in early spring when they can take root, and fence removal for migrating wildlife, which only pass through before summer takes hold.
In other parts of the country, even state-managed ecosystems are affected by the economic downturn from COVID-19. Fishing and hunting licenses, taxes on equipment sales, and entry fees for parks make up about 60 percent of the funding for state wildlife agencies, which use that money directly for conservation efforts such as endangered species recovery and habitat management.
Some of that funding is evaporating, as states have limited or suspended outdoor recreation in order to discourage out-of-state hunters and limit floods of people from congregating in the wild. Montana, for example, suspended all non-resident hunting licenses for most of April due to COVID-19. Non-residents can now hunt, but must first adhere to strict quarantine measures for 14 days. These licenses brought in $26 million in Montana last year, more than double the in-state-license revenue. Other states, like Washington, have taken even more drastic measures, suspending fishing and hunting altogether from late March through early May. They’ve also recently suspended the sale of non-resident recreational fishing licenses.
According to Nate Pamplin, the director of budget and government affairs for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the department saw license sales decline during this period. In a normal year, these sales make up a quarter of the department’s budget. The department is anticipating other budget impacts from COVID-19 as well.
“This is the time of year where we generate enough revenue that carries us through the rest of the fiscal year,” he said. “We worry this could impact tax receipts as well so we are braced for impact.”
Other government conservation efforts have also been affected. In Nebraska, the state-run, lottery-funded Nebraska Environmental Trust usually helps support everything from habitat management to recycling projects. But Mark Brohman, who runs the trust, said that they’ve put their grant disbursements on hold until the board can meet in person to finalize them and allow for public comment.
“It pushes back anyone back that applied for funds,” Brohman said. “All of our grantees are at least a month and a half behind.”
It isn’t just the environmental projects that have been left behind. As spring turns to summer, the people that would normally be heading outdoors to watch wildlife, hike, hunt, or paddle down a river may have to stay inside instead. The canceled camping trips, safaris, and hunting expeditions may have even further financial ramifications as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on.
It's this sudden vacuum in nature-based economies that may have more severe consequences for conservation in the future. According to Semcer, volatile markets in commodities like beef may drive changes in land use that will affect wildlife. She also predicted that tourism businesses and outdoor gear outfitters may shutter and guides who led safaris may wind up turning to poaching. Extraction may become more appealing on land that was once reserved for recreation.
Only time will tell if these serious environmental affects play out, but one thing is for sure, she said: “I think it's safe to say at this point that we are likely going to be hearing echoes of this pandemic for some time.”
Still, at least for Rowe Sanctuary in Nebraska, Taddicken is hopeful that 2020 will be an anomaly. “People to this day are telling us how much they love the cranes and how much they’ve missed coming to see them,” he said. “People that missed it this year are going to come next year… I just feel like it’s going to bounce back."