Furlough frustrations 

Researchers play catch-up after government shutdown

One of the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex specimens in existence—a fossil known as Wankel's Rex—awaited federal inspection at Bozeman's Museum of the Rockies in late September. The fossil had been transferred from a secure storage facility, and paleontologists had meticulously uncrated the specimen in preparation for a trip to Washington, D.C.

Then, on Oct. 1, the federal government shut down. Representatives from the Smithsonian Institute's Natural History Museum, where Wankel's Rex is destined to become the centerpiece of a new dinosaur hall, told MOR to pack everything up. The trip would have to wait until spring.

"Once we realized that the government was shut down, the curators and the scientists and the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] in particular—the guys who were really in charge of that specimen—decided that if it doesn't ship now, it's not going until spring because of the chance of a freak snowstorm while this thing's on the road," says MOR spokesman Mark Robinson. "Nobody wanted to take that chance because it is, scientifically, a very valuable specimen."

Wankel's Rex was scheduled to ship out Oct. 11, a date MOR had slated for a special send-off event. The Smithsonian had similarly set aside the fossil's arrival date of Oct. 16 for a special presentation on the National Mall to coincide with the fourth annual National Fossil Day. The two museums reached a 50-year loan agreement for Wankel's Rex earlier this summer.

Now the T. Rex, which was promptly packed up and stashed away again, will have to wait until April.

"We'll go through the same process in the spring," Robinson says, "where we uncrate it, inspect it, make sure everything's okay, re-crate it and ship it off."

The holdup for Wankel's Rex is just one example—and a relatively minor one at that—of the widespread impacts of the government shutdown on the scientific community. Furloughs and darkened websites combined to push researchers out of the field and bar online access to federally compiled data from various agencies.

NASA in particular made national headlines as 97 percent of its work force was sent home the same day the agency celebrated its 55th anniversary. Essential staff were kept on to ensure the safety of astronauts aboard the International Space Station. But the shutdown delayed the launch of dozens of new satellites and turned off the lights at NASA's Asteroid Watch program.

The shutdown also came on the eve of the latest field season in Antarctica. Newly arrived scientists were told not to unload equipment. Others were stopped in airports en route. Researchers are now faced with possible weeks-long gaps in data—sets on ice flows and penguins, and the National Science Foundation is canceling scores of projects.

click to enlarge The government shutdown delayed the transport of a nearly complete T. Rex fossil from Bozeman to Washington, D.C. Other impacts to Montana researchers were even more serious. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MUSEUM OF THE ROCKIES
  • photo courtesy of Museum of the Rockies
  • The government shutdown delayed the transport of a nearly complete T. Rex fossil from Bozeman to Washington, D.C. Other impacts to Montana researchers were even more serious.

Here in Montana, the shutdown forced the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team to call off the final month of its fall trapping schedule in Yellowstone National Park, which began Aug. 28. Biologists planned to collect samples from and apply radio collars to bears in the park through the end of October. Frank van Manen, the study team's leader, says the shutdown delayed the release of a much-anticipated report on grizzly dietary habits in Yellowstone until early December—barely in time for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee's final meeting of 2013.

"I would call it a temporary setback," van Manen says of the missed window for research. "It's something we can probably compensate for in the next field season, so it's not like some other research projects ... that missed a very critical window to get everything ready. For us, it's mostly an inconvenience and a setback."

Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Chris Servheen, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, notes a similar loss of research opportunities in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem in northwest Montana, where biologists have been collecting more detailed data on a population estimated at fewer than 50 bears.

The 16-day hiatus for FWS also meant shuttering several western Montana wildlife refuges including the National Bison Range. Lead wildlife biologist Brendan Moynahan says the bison range staff had just enough time upon returning to complete its annual herd roundup—a critical point of the year when personnel tag new bison calves, take genetic samples and cull the population to a manageable size for winter grazing. Moynahan adds the work took considerable time this year due to the shutdown's impacts on scheduled maintenance of range infrastructure. During the shutdown, bison broke through several fences and "scattered to the wind" across federal property.

The shutdown "really put in jeopardy the whole point of the work we do through the other 99 percent of the year," Moynahan says, "which is to keep animals moving across the range, try to keep the impacts from heavy grazing as acceptable as possible."

Moynahan is also gravely concerned that the shutdown may have cost the bison range time to gauge the extent of epizootic hemorrhagic disease among various wildlife populations. EHD, an illness spread by midges, killed hundreds of whitetail deer around Missoula this fall. And just days before the shutdown, a visitor to the bison range found a dead whitetail deer in Mission Creek. Tests came back positive for EHD.

Days into the shutdown, Moynahan received a call from the bison range's law enforcement officer, one of the few un-furloughed staffers. The officer reported a bull bison near Mission Creek that was having difficulty breathing. Biologists were allowed to collect emergency samples from the carcass for testing, but Moynahan hasn't yet had time to comb the property for other dead animals. At this point, any carcasses would be too degraded to yield testable samples for EHD.

"That's beyond frustration," Moynahan says. "That really is tantamount to a negligence that is a direct result of not being allowed to do our jobs."

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