(WKBN) – The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a lot of changes, many of them negative, but there is one silver lining – people have started to connect with nature more through kayaking, hunting, fishing, camping, visiting parks and even birdwatching.
“People feel safe in the outdoors, and I think maybe this will be a reawakening of people’s interest in nature and parks and things like that,” said Gary Gerrone, who manages two state parks for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in Geneva and Lake County.
Gerrone also said there has been a boom in birdwatching, one might say a throwback to the boom it saw in the 1970s, and it’s for everyone from ages 1 to 99.
“I always see a young couple with a young girl out birdwatching at Headlands Beach most days, and it’s really neat to see them out there,” said Gerrone. “I think the daughter does the reporting for them…’Today we saw…’ and she goes through the list. So it really runs the gamut. I’m really pleased it’s an activity that all ages can participate in.”
There’s no concrete way to tell why it’s become popular, but being cooped up all spring coupled with the increased attraction to parks and nature has allowed people to see the interesting aspects of birds.
“You can be a backyard birdwatcher; you can be a citizen scientist who got to be out there adding to the data; it doesn’t matter, it’s just an incredible thing,” Gerrone said. “The bottom line about birdwatching is, besides the fact that they’re so beautiful, they have great songs – they can fly, and that’s just something that I think attracts humans to their behaviors and want to see more, learn more and be amongst them, and it’s a great thing I really enjoy it.”
Jamey Emmert, of ODNR’s Wildlife Division, said wildlife watching is quite popular in Ohio.
“The numbers speak volumes. Out of 11 million people in the state of Ohio, 3 million identify as wildlife watchers. That’s pretty impressive figures,” Emmert said.
About half of those 3 million identify as birdwatchers.
“So economically, we’re seeing $160 billion… that comes back to our country in just wildlife-related recreation. Much of those contributions are from people who pursue hunting and fishing, so it’s impressive,” Emmert said.
She also acknowledged that hunters and fishers might get a bad reputation, but they are actually some of the biggest proponents of conservation and understand its importance. Even if you don’t hunt or fish, she encourages people to buy a license because that money goes back to helping conservation efforts, even if you don’t use the license.
“It’s very important to know that the [money spent on hunting and fishing licenses and permits] helps us to protect wildlife and to protect habitats,” Emmert said. “We can have all the turkeys on the landscape that we want, but if they have nowhere to live and no food or water, nothing healthy to consume, then we’re no further ahead, so it’s really important for us to provide those habitat projects, to set aside land that is specifically designed to help manage wildlife populations and allow people to enjoy the wildlife on those properties.”
Along with hunting, fishing is also on the rise. In both cases, a lot of people are interested in self-sustenance.
“It’s too soon to say [why]. We weren’t able to conduct our surveys this summer on the fishing side of things like we normally do,” said Emmert.
They couldn’t conduct their surveys because they couldn’t get outside and ask people in-person what they’re fishing for, if they’re keeping it and why they are fishing.
“There is a strong interest in self-sustenance, especially with what we experienced right when the pandemic hit Ohio, and it was hard to find groceries at the grocery store, and people were scared to go to the grocery store and so there was a lot of conversation and a lot of people reaching out to us considering the idea of maybe adding some wild food to their freezers to have it just in case. And eating from the land is very rewarding and to have that connection to directly to our food, there’s a growing interest in that, too, and that’s been for a few years now.”
The numbers prove it: There has been a 6% increase in fishing licenses, 16% increase in hunting licenses, 25% increase in deer permits, and turkey permits are up 7%. Overall, licenses and permits are up 8%.
“It can be a little daunting just ever so slightly for somebody new getting into hunting or fishing, especially hunting because there’s a lot of different categories and things to learn, and that’s why if somebody is interested we actually have a program the ‘Wild Ohio Harvest Community’ and we’re helping connect people with these first time experiences or people who want to revisit,” Emmert said. “They used to hunt, they used to fish, they haven’t done it in a long time so they’re overwhelmed by the idea, but curious so we have opportunities and as things continue to return what we consider normal that those opportunities will be much more abundant. Hopefully in 2021, there will be all kinds of classes and courses and opportunities.”
Hunters will hunt typically no matter the temperatures, but what can people that have a new-found love for the outdoors and parks do as the temperatures drop if they don’t hunt?
“Some of them are walking, some of them are walking dogs, some of them are looking for beach glass, some of them are birding, some of them are watching the sun rise, so many of those things don’t have a season,” Gerrone said of what he sees people doing at the parks by him now.
“But certainly you can add to that and I mean a beautiful snowfall, it’s such a magical thing to walk in, maybe you’re doing sledding or cross-country skiing. At Geneva here we have snowmobile trails so there’s lots to do, it doesn’t care what season it is.”
The pandemic, as terrible as it is, has helped address what Emmert referenced as Nature Deficit Disorder, a term coined by author Richard Louv, in which people have become too disconnected with nature.
“The silver lining of all this heartache and headache that we’ve had in the last several months is that people have slowed down and realized that there’s new opportunities that, when life gets in the way, they have potentially missed,” Emmert said. “There’s been so much research as to why people are disconnected from the outdoors, and early on, though before it was truly realized that people were spending so much time indoors away from nature, a manufacturer did a study on why there’s less stain removers being used in households and realizing that there are fewer grass stains on kids’ pants…on the knees of kids’ jeans, and it’s so profound, and things have slowly evolved especially over the last few months.”
For anyone worried about going to parks for fear of them not being sanitary or them being overcrowded, Gerrone said on behalf of ODNR, they are following COVID-19 guidelines to keep everyone safe.
“It’s not just a matter of making them clean (bathrooms) it’s ensuring that they’re sanitized and so the staff really did a good job and putting together procedures and keeping themselves safe and providing the public with kind of an insurance of this is an open facility that you can use and it’s safe, so I think that was the biggest challenge,” said Gerrone.
He said they want the parks open, and they want people out there having fun while staying healthy.
“I think the challenge is hanging in there are this point,” said Gerrone. “It’ll pass. It’ll pass at some point, it’s not quite there now.”
He can’t predict what happens next, but he thinks people going to parks is here to stay.
“I think there will be a residual of that, people will keep coming to parks even after it’s gone,” said Gerrone. “They’ll have great memories. It’s hard not to create a positive memory in a park.”
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