Yosemite’s Pandemic Shutdown Allows Wildlife a Respite From Mankind

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.


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.”

COVID-19 fears close Grand Canyon National Park after weeks of pressure

PHOENIX – The National Park Service abruptly closed Grand Canyon National Park on Wednesday, bowing to weeks of pressure after health officials expressed “extreme concern” about the potential for spread of COVID-19 in the park.

The park has been open with reduced services – and no entry fee – for two weeks as the number of coronavirus cases have spiked in the state and the nation and as public health officials have enacted increasingly strict limits on gatherings and public activities.

Those increases were cited Wednesday by Coconino County Chief Health Officer Thomas Pristow, who said the county has recorded 82 COVID-19 cases and four deaths from the disease. Projections of the disease’s growth over the next month are “staggering,” he said in a letter to park officials.

“The decision to allow the park to remain open puts park employees, area residents and tourists at risk,” Pristow’s letter said.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the decision to close the park came “as soon as we received the letter.” The park was closed immediately and will remain closed indefinitely, he said in a press release.

“The Department of the Interior and the National Park Service will continue to follow the guidance of state and local health officials in making determinations about our operations,” Bernhardt’s statement said.

But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, who had joined others urging the park’s closure, called Bernhardt’s explanation “absurd on its face,” noting that Pristow sent a similarly urgent letter Friday. He said “any competent authority would take notice and act immediately.”

“Instead, the Interior Department delayed for nearly a week while the governor remained silent,” Grijalva said in a statement Tuesday. “Secretary Bernhardt can’t blame anyone else for his inability to make the obvious and necessary decision.”

The Grand Canyon drew 6.3 million visitors who spent $947 million in the region in 2018, according to a National Park Service report last year. It said tourism to the park generated $1.2 billion in total economic activity and supported more than 12,000 jobs in the region.

Despite the potential economic hit, an official with the Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce and Visitors welcomed the closure.

“I know for the safety of the residents, we’re happy that we’ve gotten to this point,” said Laura Chastain, the visitors bureau spokesperson. “Just wish it would have happened sooner.”

Tusayan Vice Mayor Brady Harris said he respects the “difficult decision” to temporarily close the park, “given the rapid spread of COVID-19.”

“It was made with the best interest of our residents in the surrounding community, by closing the Grand Canyon National Park,” Harris said. “I hope that the spread of this virus will be curved, allowing us to return back to normal as quickly and safely as possible.”

Calls for the park’s closure had been made by Coconino County officials and the Navajo Nation, among others. They were joined Tuesday by 10 members of Congress, including three from Arizona, who urged Bernhardt to close the park, citing public health and safety concerns. The lawmakers’s letter said that in one day on a popular Grand Canyon trail, a park ranger “had 600 contacts with visitors.”

Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, who signed the letter, said Wednesday he was glad to see Park Service leadership listened to concerns from members of Congress and others.

“While I am committed to protecting our public lands and ensuring that they are accessible to all Americans, the health and safety of my constituents is my top priority,” O’Halleran said in a press release following the closure announcement. “I believe that this is the correct course of action.”

While the park itself is closed, Chastain said she hopes people take advantage of digital park viewing tools during this time to “virtually” visit.

“We still have different videos we’ve created over the years that will allow people to still see a national treasure, even if we are closed for the safety of everyone,” she said.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.