Some park visitors seeking relief from Covid lockdown became ‘virus’ to wildlife, habitat

By Harvey Barkin

Public parks drew more visitors during the pandemic. Many people who were forced to stay indoors in the lockdown chose to go out to the parks after almost two years of being confined at home.

The East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) is the largest park district in the US with 125,000 acres of coastal wetlands, oak and red woodlands, forests, ponds and grasslands. The park district covers Ohlone, Berkeley, Richmond, San Leandro and other areas.

According to EBRPD, park visitation rose to over 30 percent district wide and as much as 400 percent at some popular parks and trails. This puts the number of park visitors to about 30 million annually in Alameda and Costa Counties, and the Bay Area.

In the parks the breath of fresh air is always good for mental and physical health, and vitamin D from sunlight can be helpful against the Covid virus, according to studies.

But what if the virus were humans infecting the natural habitats of endangered and rare species?

Ethnic Media Services and EBRPD co-hosted a press brief last October 8 to reveal how more park visitors put native wildlife and habitat at risk.

EBRPD Stewardship Department Ecological Services Manager Becky Tuden talked about visitors who intrude with metal, rubber and petrochemical in their cars. She said that many California parks have a distinct feature where the periphery of the parks are close to the edge of urban areas. “And that’s where we are encroaching on the parks.”

She also said, hikers are not aware that when they leave their walking stick or spread weeds “that should not be there,” pathogens could be introduces into the environment “that does not have a natural predator” to combat them. Resulting in “a loss of bio-diversity.”

Every time a visitor spends recreation time in the park “is a loss for the wildlife. The disturbed animals may leave, not feed or care for their young.”

In recent years, public parks also had to endure the ravages of climate change. “The increase in precipitation is a strain,” Truden said. Not to mention infrastructure that fast moving technology requires like cell phone towers.

She also cited 25 million beach visitors with dogs, not realizing a quarter of their number unleash pets disturbing some rare bird species nesting along the shoreline like the Federally protected Western Snowy Plover in Crown Beach, Alameda.

Adjunct California State University Biology professor and EBRPD Wildlife Program Manager Doug Bell mentioned how some people lost their jobs in the pandemic, realizing they couldn’t feed their families, much less their pets. Consequently, they released their pets into the parks. This gave rise to an overpopulation of feral cats who preyed on protected birds and domesticated bunnies that quickly fell to apex predators in the park.

Bell also related the folly of feeding what seemed like cute raccoons at the time and even coyotes. It has been noted that animals who get fed lose their fear of humans and become aggressive. Bell said raccoons do climb on people and bite if they don’t get food.

He also said, many hikers use bootleg trails and they don’t realize there are nests with the sensitive chicks of the Golden eagle in wilderness of Del Valle. One year,  they found a drone that crashed into a Bald eagles up the trees in Ardenwood farm. The parent eagle abandoned the nest and the young eagles were eaten by ravens or succumbed to the weather.

For his part, Fisheries Program Manager Joe Sullivan covered the 10 fishing reservoirs and four shoreline fishing piers in the EBPRD. He said some park visitors take the opportunity to release goldfish and turtles into the waters. He explained why this is not recommended. “Fish bought from a pet store or a market may have parasite that can infect aquatic life in the park.” They traced an incident of deadly parasites that infected frogs with fungus.

Sullivan related how the Baha’i religious community release fish into the waters as part of a ceremony. He said there are also some who release fish to commemorate lost family members.

Sullivan explained that only at a licensed hatchery, accredited by the State, can one get  fish tested for parasite and water tested, too. He also said responsible visitors would fish only at reservoirs, not in the stream where aquatic life is protested.

Through all of this, the message of “Enjoy, don’t destroy our public parks” comes clear.

Tuden said EBRPD is a bio-diverse area and habitat with scarce and rare wildlife.  Growing up in Pennsylvania and spending time in Colorado, she said the public park is one of California’s enviable benefits compared to other states. But so many visitors seem to forget and even aggravate the already strained natural resource.

First Asian and Filipino-American in the EBRPD Board of Directors Dee Rosario related that in the 1970s, most visitors to the parks came for the solace. In later years he observed that people of color began visiting parks and they brought their families with them.

He stressed the importance of “respecting the land” and being “sensitive” to both diverse cultures and bio-diverse wildlife in the parks.

Bell succinctly put it: “1. Enjoy the park, don’t disturb the environment, 2. Enjoy the park, don’t feed the wildlife and 3. Don’t release animals in the park.”

Rosario summed it up: “(The parks) are our land, they belong to everybody. With it comes the responsibility of sharing and treating well each other and the land.”