During the coronavirus pandemic, the rural parts of the UC Davis campus have seen an influx of visitors seeking alternative recreation spots close to home — sometimes too many visitors and sometimes with adverse consequences.
Officials say habitat is being damaged, agricultural research threatened and wildlife impacted in the Putah Creek Riparian Reserve and other areas of south and west campus.
“The Putah Creek Riparian Reserve is a teaching and research natural area, first and foremost,” said Andrew Fulks, assistant director, UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden, the campus division that maintains and operates the reserve. “People are allowed in some areas for passive recreation, but they need to remember it isn’t a park, and human impacts hurt not only the environment, but active research and class use.”
Increased public use has led to bank erosion where ropes have been hung from tree limbs for swinging, as people climb up and down the banks to ride the swings. Anglers have cut down trees and bank vegetation to prevent fishing lines from being caught. Visitors, desperate to find parking, have blocked access roads and gates.
Bird boxes destroyed, snakes killed
Perhaps most distressing are the wildlife impacts, with people observed destroying bird boxes that are part of the Putah Creek Nestbox Highway. Since the beginning of shelter-in-place orders, seven gopher snakes have been found with fatal wounds consistent with human-caused mortality.
Citing instances of cars overflowing parking areas along the reserve, officials said temporary parking limits may need to be implemented to reduce the overall visitor impact.
Officials also cited issues with people not maintaining physical distance from one another, and dogs being off-leash.
“The amount of off-leash dog activity has exceeded anything I’ve seen before,” said JP Marie, reserve manager. “While dogs are generally allowed on the paths, they have to remain on leash, per Yolo County code and UC Davis policy.”
Threat to agricultural research
Officials also report increased dog-walking and jogger activity amid the agricultural lands of west campus. For researchers and land managers, this presents increased difficulty in pest management, equipment operations and maintaining the quality of research in their areas. Unknowingly, visitors disrupt ongoing sensitive research and instrumentation or potentially expose themselves to agricultural chemicals.
“The safety of the public, the safety of our research staff, and the integrity of our research is important to UC Davis,” said Brad Hanson, a Cooperative Extension specialist, Department of Plant Sciences, and faculty chair of the Plant Science Field Committee, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
For Dan Sehnert with the Department of Animal Science, the increased visitation has direct impacts on the animals under his care.
“Since the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order, we’ve had casual visitors feeding sheep at the sheep barn, as well as their dogs distressing the sheep by getting too close to the pens,” he said. “This can cause the sheep to run into the fence and injure themselves, including breaking bones.”