While the decrease in human activity due to COVID-19 hasn’t made a significant difference in Sonoma County’s air quality, it has triggered increased activity in local habitats.
If there is a silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that the flora and fauna of the county seem to be thriving in the absence of humans — herds of deer are roaming county parks and plains, and mountain lions are making more appearances in Sonoma County Regional Park wildlife cameras.
Healdsburg Utility Conservation Analyst Felicia Smith said that, according to updated statistics from the Sonoma County Transit Authority, there’s been a 75% reduction county-wide in vehicle miles travelled since the shelter in place order was issued in March.
And while it may seem like that would make a big difference in the county’s air quality, Melanie Bagby, chair of the Northern Sonoma County Air Pollution Control District and Cloverdale city council member, said we aren’t seeing a significant change since April is typically one of the cleanest months in terms of air quality.
“If you look at apples to apples, we aren’t seeing a significant change; it is slightly below what our baseline would be, but where we are really seeing it is down in the Bay Area. We aren’t seeing that (change in air quality), but what I think is significant is that people are really understanding that they probably don’t need to drive as much as we do for work,” Bagby said. “I think worldwide it (the shelter in place) is having a really big impact and I was talking to Rob (Robert Bamford, executive director of the Northern Sonoma County Air Pollution Control) and there isn’t actually much of a delta in our little bit of Northern Sonoma County air pollution control district because April is typically one of our cleanest months, because it’s too warm for people to be using their fireplaces.”
According to AirNow.gov, the website that reports and forecasts air quality using the Air Quality Index (AQI), a color coded scale from 0 to 500 that communicates air quality, the AQI for the Santa Rosa reporting area is 33.
An AQI of 0 to 50 is good, 51 to 100 is moderate, 101 to 150 is deemed unhealthy for sensitive groups, 151 to 200 is unhealthy, 201 to 300 is dangerous and anything over 301 is considered hazardous.
As Bagby pointed out, the AQI for the Santa Rosa reporting area hasn’t changed that drastically for the April 4 to May 2 period, the first full month of the county’s shelter-in-place order.
“We anticipate that we’ll see a lot of responsiveness to our programs coming up in the next year or two that support that (the change in the mindset of not needing to drive into work) like the electric vehicle program, charging stations, things like that. We’ll probably see behavioral changes that are supported by air quality improvements in other areas,” she said.
On the prowl
While there may not be that big of a change in air quality, local wildlife activity has certainly increased in the absence of human activity.
“Speaking of that, my dog was chasing a possum in our backyard this morning, so we already had our wildlife sighting and they are definitely around,” Bagby said, laughing.
Toward the end of April, a wildlife camera at the Sonoma Valley Regional Park captured a family of white-spotted triplet fawns and their mother walking through the forest.
“While twins are often the norm, deer will bear triplets about 15-20% of the time if their numbers are in balance with quality habitat that can support them. It is often a sign of a healthy deer population,” county parks wrote in a Facebook post on its Sonoma County Regional Parks page.
Later that week, a female mountain lion graced another one of the county park wildlife cameras.
Kyle Gift, a LandPaths facilities and maintenance specialist who works at the Ocean Song Preserve in Occidental, reported that he too has seen more wildlife.
“It’s a little hard to gauge, the lack of human impact/interaction on the preserves because typically there isn’t much to be heard of. That being said, there definitely is an abundance of wildlife. Herds of deer roam freely through the grasslands munching on what they can find. You often hear turkeys gobbling in the distance and can see the males displaying their plumage trying to attract a mate. There’s a constant chorus of birds singing their songs in the background, letting you know spring is in full bloom. Western fence lizards are constantly jockeying for position of the best sunspots and are often scurrying on fence posts and around structures as you pass by. Swallows are flying here and there, doing their aerial acrobatics, and if you’re up near the pond, you can see them dive to skim the surface of the water to get a drink,” Gift said.
He added that despite the small amount of rain the area received this past winter, local flora is also starting to bloom.
“Even though we didn't have a lot of rain this season, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of wildflowers. The Douglas Iris have been coming up for a while and there are lots of the Indian warrior flower coming up along the oak woodlands,” he said.
Gift added that since he is now the only person out on the preserve working on maintenance projects, the local bird population has taken to observing Gift when Gift is usually the one observing the birds.
“A pair of ravens seem to have taken an interest in my maintenance endeavors. While I was applying a sealer to the main gate, they would come and sit on an adjacent fence and tree and watch what I was doing. Later, while I’ve been organizing the barn, they’ll often sit on the rooftop peeking down as I dart in and out organizing things. They are very vocal and almost seem to be mocking me at times, as if they’re laughing at my silly human endeavors," Gift said.
Want to take a peek at local wildlife? Check out the Sonoma County Regional Park Facebook page (facebook.com/sonomacounty regionalparks), where they often post videos of local critters making an appearance.