Amid the earlier months of COVID-19, with beaches and parks off limits, people looking for a change in scenery did not have many options. Wildlife refuges quickly became a favorite for anyone seeking some fresh air.
Refuge manager at Lenape National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Michael Horne, shared his findings with NBC New York in an interview earlier this month. He said the rise in interest started early on but still hasn’t calmed down.
“As we entered the middle stages of coronavirus where county and local parks began to close, we really noticed an uptick in visitation then,” Horne reflected.
The Lenape National Wildlife Refuge Complex covers conservation areas across New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. According to Horne, these lands experienced 3 to 4 times the number of visitors normally seen – and the surge continues to hold.
“Visitation continues to remain high, even with other lands and options opening back up,” said Horne, who sees the increased interest as a valued opportunity. To him, people were unaware of what wildlife refuges were and what they had to offer. This opened the door to a new appreciation for nature sanctuaries.
“The upside to all this is that the people of the New York metropolitan area are much more aware of what we try to do and exist,” mentioned Horne. Visitor centers remain closed for the time being, but staff are slowly returning to begin field work.
June is recognized as the “Great Outdoors Month” - so parks have been preparing for even more families and nature lovers. Horne found that social distancing has not posed a problem and as more refuge areas begin to reopen visitors will have even more travel options.
However, increased visitation has impacted one wildlife organization a bit differently. Marine Mammal Stranding Center’s Founding Director Bob Schoelkopf tells another side to the rise in visitation.
Located in Brigantine, New Jersey, the MMSC is a private, non-profit organization started in 1978 that helps rescue and rehabilitate stranded marine life, such as seals, dolphins, sea turtles and whales.
Schoelkopf spoke to NBC New York in a phone interview in early May. He explained how the organization has experienced a decent amount of rescues off the beaches, but that the residents are causing issue.
Schoelkopf said that what was unusual this spring was the number of animals that had to be picked up rather than rescued due to interference from people.
“The pandemic is affecting us only because more people are harassing these animals on the beach... We’ve handled upwards of 60 seals for this year, close to average, but we must have had at least 300 calls for those seals. We may get 20 calls for one seal,” shared the MMSC founder.
With a staff of only four, the MMSC splits the morning and afternoon shifts, while many local volunteers have agreed to “seal sit" by monitoring the coasts for potential seals in need.
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