Little known about how pandemic has affected wildlife, Alberta researcher says

While stories spread around the world of animals venturing into human areas, University of Alberta biological sciences professor Colleen Cassady St. Clair says the jury is still out on how decreased human activity during the pandemic is affecting wildlife.

Animals likely spreading out as human traffic plummets

University of Alberta professor Dr. Colleen Cassady St. Clair says some wildlife can very quickly respond to changes in their environment — including the temporary disappearance of humans during the pandemic. (Associated Press)

The jury is still out on how decreased human activity during the pandemic is affecting wildlife, one Alberta researcher says. 

"We don't know," said University of Alberta biological sciences professor Colleen Cassady St. Clair Monday in an interview with CBC's Alberta Afternoon. "I think they might be wondering what's going on with us."

In Edmonton, St. Clair said she has seen more people on sidewalks and community trails while vehicle traffic drops.

"Which should make it easier for [animals] to move around the city but more likely to encounter people," she said. 

St. Clair runs the Edmonton Urban Coyote Project that works with the City of Edmonton and Animal Damage Control to study coyotes. Residents can report coyote sightings to the site but she says the website has been "surprisingly quiet."

In some parts of the world, animals have been observed where they're usually not, like cougars in Santiago and wild boars in Barcelona. 

But in Alberta, St. Clair expects it's in provincial and national parks where people will see the biggest difference.

"Probably the wildlife are really rapidly getting used to having a place to themselves and using areas closer to where people would normally occur but are not found now," she said. 

"So I think the big surprises are going to come when those areas reopen."

Normally bustling Banff Ave. is quiet on a Friday afternoon in April. The mountain town reliant on tourism and visitors has seen disproportionate layoffs and business closures. (Dale Einarson/Banff & Lake Louise Tourism)

St. Clair said there have already been reports of increased use of sidewalks and roads by elk in mountain towns like Banff and Jasper and that similar movements are likely occurring with bears, cougars and wolves.

"As the restrictions are lifted, I think that's when we need to be a bit more aware when we go back into these parks."

Spring is also generally known as a time for animal offspring. St. Clair said coyotes are currently denning and litters can be expected to be born in the coming weeks.

It's a time when coyotes are usually more territorial, especially around off-leash dogs.

This year, with city rules banning off-leash dogs in many parks, the situation may be different.

"With the restrictions on leashing dogs in places like Terwillegar, coyotes might very rapidly adjust to that new normal for not having to deal with dogs being quite so abundant," she said.

St. Clair said it's also possible that with the reduction in traffic, coyotes could move into more residential areas. 

"A lot of the animals that are known to be urban exploiters, as they're sometimes called, are really tremendously flexible in their behaviour," she said. "They're masters of observing changes in their environment and they respond to them really quickly."

St. Clair said multiple studies have shown wildlife respond quickly to the changing traffic of humans in natural areas, with carnivores being especially quick to adjust. 

She said when people return to a more normal way of life, Albertans will need to be careful around these animals.

"We should be ready to cut them some slack and to use extra precautions and just double down on all the things we know we should do."