Scales Nature Park (Ontario)

Maintaining wildlife conservation during pandemic

Anthony handles a snapping turtle under START permits during mark-recapture study.

Science Horizons intern, Anthony Amsel, handles a snapping turtle under START permits during mark-recapture study, Muskoka, ON. Photo credit: Madelaine Kellett.

During the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, internship funding from Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Science Horizons Youth Internship program was critical for the survival of Scales Nature Park in Ontario says its co-founder and owner Jeff Hathaway.

With a nature centre, a turtle hospital and 21 hectares of trails with streams, ponds and second-growth forest, the park just south of Orillia had to close for two seasons with a substantial loss of admission revenues. It also had to curtail its revenue-earning educational programs. Focussing on conservation of Canadian species such as frogs, toads, snakes and turtles, it houses more than 500 animals and was open to the public before the pandemic hit.

Hathaway says internship funding allowed him to hire young scientists who continued to do wildlife surveys and other conservation work throughout the pandemic. In locations such as Pelee Island, Muskoka and the Georgian Bay regions of Ontario, interns research and monitor at-risk species.

Scales is perhaps best known for its work on a project called “Saving Turtles at Risk Today” or START. The project’s aim is to reverse turtle population declines and it is a partnership with the Georgian Bay Turtle Hospital, the Canadian Wildlife Federation, several universities and other groups.

Anthony wears a net mask while handling a Snapping Turtle under a START permit when surveying nesting sites.

Anthony Amsel handles a snapping turtle under START permits during nesting surveys, Muskoka, ON. Photo credit: Anthony Amsel.

Employees and volunteers patrol roads to reduce adult turtle mortality and excavate thousands of turtle eggs along roadsides which might otherwise be eaten by predators. Eggs are incubated for two months before the baby turtles are released close to where the eggs were laid. The program ups the hatching rate in the wild to an impressive 98% compared to 10%-20%.

Anthony Amsel, a wildlife biologist now working for Parks Canada’s Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, was heavily involved in START’s conservation efforts as a Senior Field Technician. He was hired by the Georgian Bay Turtle Hospital in 2019 through the Clean Foundation’s Science Horizons Youth Internship Program, funded by Environment and Climate Change Canada.

A graduate in ecology from the Université de Sherbrooke, Amsel says the internship helped him put into practice his leadership skills within a field setting. “It really bolstered my fieldwork experience which is relatively difficult to obtain in the field of conservation unless you are a full-time employee or have the luxury of volunteering,” he says. Following the internship, Amsel became a team leader with START.

Amsel’s work was varied, including wetland and nesting surveys, data analysis, education, communications, animal husbandry and logistics.

He became a coordinator with the Highland Habitat Project which involved more than 50 at-risk species including reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish, insects, small mammals and wolves. Led by conservation charity The Land Between and funded by Environment and Climate Change Canada, the collaborative project involved discussions with First Nations, such as the Shawanaga and the Magnetawan. Studies of the Eastern Wolf integrated traditional ecological knowledge and modern scientific techniques, such as DNA analysis.

Anthony is handling a map turtle under START permits during mark-recapture surveys.

Anthony Amsel handles a map turtle under START permits during mark-recapture surveys, Muskoka, ON. Photo credit: Anthony Amsel.

Amsel first fell in love with the wilderness at summer camps in Québec’s Eastern Townships and then through fieldwork at university. Work at Scales was “like summer camp for adults while helping with the conservation of the ecosystem,” he says. “On a personal level it reconnected me to the nature that I hold so dear and orientated my personal and professional goals for the rest of my career.”

Since opening to the public in 2010, Scales and its conservation partners have employed many science graduates with the help of Science Horizons funding.

Hathaway seeks candidates who are passionate about conserving native species. “You really have to care about turtles, snakes and frogs to do this work,” he says. He looks for people who work well in a team because they need to live together and travel to remote sites. Technical skills can be taught, he says, but interns need to be prepared for biting insects and immersion in sometimes icy waters: “If a person doesn’t like to jump into a swamp, that’s a problem.”

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