Conservation

After the Government Shutdown, Scientists Are Scrambling to Catch Up

Some projects are behind and others will be missed entirely. Meanwhile, everyone is wondering whether another shutdown is around the bend.

When Emily Williams heard the federal shutdown had ended, she picked up her phone and hoped it wasn’t too late to get her team’s research up and running.

Williams, an avian ecologist with the National Park Service, studies Canada Jay breeding populations in Alaska. Her work had been on hold since the partial government shutdown began on December 22, and so she hustled to book staff flights and file permits. She also hopped in her car and drove four hours to Anchorage to personally drop off jay blood samples and buy basic supplies she’d been forbidden to purchase until the federal government reopened.

Many researchers and scientists suffered similar frustrations and delays due to the shutdown. For some, valuable time was lost, while for others their work was strangled by red tape. And those projects that were saved from cancellation remain in limbo since President Trump announced that the end of the shutdown is contingent on passing a federal budget that includes funding for a wall along the U.S. southern border. If February 15 comes without a budget, everyone will have to abandon their research again.

The biggest problem avian researchers like Williams faced during December and January was that their subjects—breeding birds—wouldn’t exactly wait around for them. Birds don’t care if there’s a government shutdown.

In California, Tom Anderson, assistant refuge manager at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, wasn’t as lucky as Williams. January is usually a critical time for counting breeding wetland birds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, typically teams up with state biologists for the annual survey, called the California Midwinter Waterfowl Inventory. The results are used to make long-term decisions about how to best protect these species and the ecosystems where they live. But the birds that had arrived at the Salton Sea won’t be counted this year; by the time federal biologists were allowed to return to work, it was too late.

“[Survey coordinators] sent out an email the other day saying don’t bother; we’re outside the survey window,” Anderson says. “That’s a big one . . .  There’s a hole in the data.”

During the shutdown, 800,000 government employees went without pay. Several federal scientists also said they were seriously concerned for their seasonal field staff who aren’t eligible for backpay, even though they’re essential for research and data collection. National parks and refuges were shuttered—aside from a skeleton staff—and scientists who were furloughed were forbidden to take work calls, access data, or go into the field to lead surveys. Even routine work like planning meetings ground to a halt.

“Winter is the critical time to get your meetings and planning done,” says Andrea Jones, Audubon California’s director of bird conservation, who notes her office wasn’t able to have any meetings with federal partners during the shutdown. “That really did slow us down.”

Williams, who spoke with Audubon as an individual, not as an official representing the NPS, says her team’s research focuses on how climate change threatens Canada Jays in Denali National Park. These findings are then compared to data from partners studying the same jays in Algonquin Provincial Park in Canada. The birds start to build nests in February and lay eggs by March in below-freezing temperatures.

Because Canada Jays are considered an indicator species for the health of the forests they inhabit, keeping long-term data on their populations can help scientists understand how to best protect these forests. Jay research in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario has already added clarity on how northern areas like Ontario and Alaska are warming faster from climate change than the mainland United States, says Ryan Norris, University of Guelph associate professor and an expert on Canada jays.

Williams said it’s looking like her group will be able to stick to their regular sampling schedule if she gets all the paperwork in order. To do that, though, she’ll be putting in a heap of weekend and late-night work going forward to catch up on analyzing data and writing reports that should have been completed during January. “I’ve definitely been putting in longer days, and I probably will for a while,” she says.

Elizabeth Abraham, a U.S. Geological Survey avian biologist in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, says she and her team who are studying avian malaria weren’t sure whether the government would reopen in time for them to catch birds on enough islands to understand how the virus has spread over the past year. She was getting nervous that her team would have to skip critical sites, but that hasn’t been the case. However, she says they were days away from having to make the call to slash parts of the plan they’d been forming for months. “We lost most of our preparation time,” she says. “If it had gone on much longer, we would have lost time that we wouldn’t have been able to make up.”

Mary Stefanski, a FWS District Manager in Winona, Minnesota, says her office had long planned to bring in a new employee to take over monitoring two colonies of Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets. The shutdown stopped that process midway through, and Stefanski expects she won’t get a new employee authorized until at least April due to the backlog of personnel requests into Washington, D.C. By then, the birds’ breeding season will be over. "We were at the cusp of losing that opportunity this year, and we probably have lost that because we don’t have anyone to do it,” she says. “That’s probably not going to happen this year." 

In addition to the stress of catching up or missing out on important research, in the back of each of these ecologists’ minds also looms the question: What’s going to happen if the government shuts down again next week? Several researchers say they’re proceeding with the assumption that it won't happen again. They don’t have any other good options. Time is working against them.

“If [the shutdown] had lasted much longer, it would have had huge repercussions,” says Eben Paxton, a USGS research ecologist at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Paxton notes that his team is responsible for collecting blood samples that several public and private collaborating researchers are relying on. "There’s a whole bunch of people waiting on these samples," he says. "We have all fingers and toes crossed that we don’t face another one in February.”

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