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Yosemite’s Pandemic Shutdown Allows Wildlife a Respite From Mankind

Reporter Roundup is a collaboration between PBS SoCal/KCET and KPCC/LAist to bring you the biggest headlines M-F about COVID-19. Watch the April 28 episode here.

Coyotes are roaming empty campsites. Deer are grazing on empty fields. Rivers are rushing as the ice melts.

Yosemite National Park  is virtually empty of humans.

For weeks now, wildlife has been allowed to move freely about the park since officials closed the mountains and valleys to humans to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I can go for a run around a meadow and see deer and coyotes and hear the red wing blackbirds...and listen to the river from my bedroom window," said Breezy Jackson, director of UC Merced’s Yosemite Field Station, where scientists normally conduct research and teach classes year-round. "I feel incredibly fortunate and well-placed to shelter the storm.”

Jackson has lived alone with her husband, Paul, in one of the station’s seven homes since stay-at-home orders took effect in March. A wildlife biologist who normally would be working with dozens of scientists, keeps watch on the site as a caretaker while her colleagues stay away.

Along with some residents and park rangers, Jackson is one of the few humans to stay inside the park since the shutdown.

"I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility," Jackson said. "I get to enjoy the park with relatively few people around and be a steward of this place."

Yosemite is usually a busy place. Last year, 4.5 million people visited Yosemite, ranking it at the National Park Service’s fifth most-visited park in the country.

Overcrowding also has been an increasing challenge, with hours long waits to enter the park. A normal day on an April weekend might draw 10,000 people.

But now, Yosemite’s empty, harkening back to an earlier time before humans invaded it.

With Stay-At-Home orders imposed in California, Yosemite National Park has been closed to the public since March 20, 2020. Here’s what the park looks like while everyone is at home. | Footage courtesy National Park Service

For weeks since the park closed, Yosemite park rangers have posted videos on social media showing animals seeming to enjoy life without humans, wandering freely through campsites and on roads where normally they would find cars, hikers and danger.

The Yosemite Convervancy’s webcams have shown their online visitors deer and coyotes scampering through empty campsites, and bears enjoying open country. The nearly 85,000 webcam views in March doubled those from January and February.  Clicks take viewers to Yosemite Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in North America; Half Dome; El Capitan; and the High Sierra.

"At any time of year, it’s fun to see Yosemite remotely from your house," said Frank Dean, president of the Yosemite Conservancy, which funds grants from donations to restore trails and habitat, protect wildlife and provide education programs. "You can get an actual live shot of what Yosemite is like – has it just snowed or is there a beautiful sunset."

The "rewilding," Dean said, is fun to see. Animals are reverting to their natural diets, not eating scraps. 

In the weeks without humans, "roadkill" is down. Coyotes, squirrels and other animals aren't being struck by cars, Jackson said.

"I've seen tons of wildlife lately, lots of coyotes," Jackson said. "It feels like the animals are more present. There are a lot of deer right now because the grass is coming up. They seem completely at peace."

Trash is also down, especially the toilet paper people have used and discarded, and left for ravens to unravel, Jackson said.

When the park will reopen is unknown, and when her colleagues will return is unclear.

Just last week, Mariposa County, where Yosemite is located, reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19 infection.  

"When we do allow research, what will that be like?" she said. "It's hard to imagine the future."

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