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Conducting field research during a pandemic

Northern spotted owl in flight.
Up-to-date information on northern spotted owls is critical for land management and regulatory decisions. USDA Forest Service photo by Julie Jenkins.

Some scientific research requires being in the right place at the right time. Missing a window for location- and time-specific research can mean missing out on valuable data needed to make informed land management decisions. For many Forest Service scientists, the global COVID-19 pandemic has presented a novel roadblock to such important work.

"This pandemic situation is unprecedented in how pernicious and transmissible the virus is among people,” said Bruce Marcot, Pacific Northwest Research Station research wildlife biologist. “We needed to think anew about evaluating work hazards and ways to reduce the risks, to help ensure the safety of the field crews and to complete the field work that managers rely on."

Time-sensitive science for northern spotted owls

FIeld crew member surveys northern spotted owls.
A Pacific Northwest Research Station field crew member, Kristen Wert, surveys northern spotted owls. USDA Forest Service photo by Mackenzie Park.

One such time-sensitive field study is the annual assessment of threatened northern spotted owls, an important indicator species of forest ecosystem health in the Pacific Northwest. The status of threatened species is regularly assessed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which relies on annual data from many researchers, including station scientists.

“Up-to-date information on northern spotted owls is critical for land management and regulatory decisions because populations have declined so dramatically and uninformed decision-making could have a significant adverse impact on spotted owls that remain on the landscape,” explained Damon Lesmeister, PNW research wildlife biologist. “Missing even one year of data can have severe ramifications for spotted owls but, at the same time, crew safety is the highest priority. We spent significant time evaluating COVID risks to determine if, and how, mitigations could be established that maximized crew safety, while facilitating collection of critical spotted owl data.”

Assessing and mitigating potential risks

Station researchers knew the first step toward safely conducting fieldwork during a pandemic was a risk assessment of all planned research activities. While some researchers had conducted risk assessments in the past, none had done so while considering the unique and serious risks posed by COVID-19.

This risk assessment was a large collaborative effort that included PNW supervisory wildlife biologist Todd Wilson, Pacific Northwest Region's Ray Davis, PNW acting program manager Eric Volkman, and PNW acting station director Paul Anderson, with key contributions from PNW biologist Michelle Gerdes and Chris McCafferty and Stan Sovern with Oregon State University. Together, they navigated a detailed risk assessment of each planned research action to assess spotted owl populations during a pandemic. 
As part of the process, they identified specific mitigation measures to reduce risks related to disease spread and weighed estimated risks vs. critical research needs. They determined which research tasks could be conducted at relatively low risk to field crews, then developed detailed methods to accomplish just that.

During the field season, the team held weekly evaluation discussions for 22 weeks. Acting station director Anderson made the final decision on whether to initiate, continue or curtail field research activities based on weekly recommendations and data that the team compiled on local and regional trends of COVID-19 cases as well as health and safety capacities.

"The weekly risk evaluation, recommendation and decision sessions were among the most vital and serious roles I have played in my career, knowing that they directly affected the health and operations of so many people," said Marcot.

Trees where northern spotted owls nest in western Washington.
A northern spotted owl study site in western Washington. USDA Forest Service photo by Heather Lambert.

Success heralds the field crews

The outcome was a successful field season in which all research objectives were met, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines were followed, and there were no field crew COVID-19 incidents.

“As always, we conducted daily check-ins, but this year we were also checking if crew and any housemates were experiencing any COVID symptoms,” said Lesmeister. “Some of the most significant changes for our crews included holding team meetings by video, having only one person per vehicle, curtailed training of new employees on tasks that would require close contact with the instructor and disinfecting equipment during exchanges.”

The researchers credit every field crew member for strictly following all procedures and mitigation activities, no matter how stringent, to keep themselves and the public safe. In response, PNW recognized crew members with special certificates of merit.

The researchers recently published a detailed account of their risk assessment process. “We hope that the paper will provide a useful roadmap for other researchers, regardless of the specific study, who are facing similar hurdles to conduct safe field research during the pandemic,” said Lesmeister.      

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