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Thursday, July 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Dinosaurs, fossils and the experts who study them have all waited for an end to the shutdown

A paleontologist makes his way Oct. 10 to a newly discovered dinosaur site in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. The government shutdown put many researchers’ work on hold. (Bonnie Jo Mount / Washington Post)
A paleontologist makes his way Oct. 10 to a newly discovered dinosaur site in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. The government shutdown put many researchers’ work on hold. (Bonnie Jo Mount / Washington Post)
By Brian Switek Special to the Washington Post

The government shutdown managed to shut even dinosaurs down – and no temporary reopening will undo the damage, scientists warn.

The problems from more than 34 days of political gridlock have gone far beyond the closed visitors centers at places such as Dinosaur National Monument and Petrified Forest National Park, where the lack of on-duty rangers had many worrying about the damage that unsupervised visitors were causing or the relics they might be gathering.

Paleontologists who were looking forward to striking out for the fossil-laden outcrops of federal lands have dealt with separate issues. Permits for the fast-approaching field season are jammed up, and federal scientists, locked out of offices and email and prohibited from working even remotely, haven’t been able to talk to other researchers about how to plan for future explorations.

“In terms of a new area, I need to talk to them,” explained Andrew Farke of the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in California. The input of federal scientists is always critical for determining locations with the best potential for fossils, as well as the best ways to arrange a search permit, Farke said. Unless there’s quick catch-up, finding new fossil sites in vast places of wilderness such as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument may have to wait for another year.

The comparatively small chunk of funding the National Science Foundation sets aside for fossil research has been held up, too. University of Rochester paleontologist Penny Higgins has been waiting with colleagues for word on NSF support for research focused on how a dramatic global temperature spike 40 million years ago relates to climate change today. The pressures from not having a funding decision grew over the past five weeks, she said.

Not only was fieldwork planning essentially suspended, but “summer courses and field experiences also need to be planned and students recruited, which can’t be done until funding is available,” Higgins said.

University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh paleontologist Joseph Peterson faced a similar situation. Peterson and his colleagues were in talks with the Bureau of Land Management for a long-term agreement to continue work at Utah’s Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, an incredibly dense Jurassic bonebed full of the carnivore Allosaurus.

“We were told that we would hear a formal announcement at the beginning of the year,” Peterson said. “Then everything just stopped.” How quickly the Bureau of Land Management – and other federal agencies – will be able to clear the backlog is uncertain.

Farke noted that there have certainly been worse effects of the shutdown, and the plight of paleontology is not unique. Still, the government closure dramatically affected researchers from the Smithsonian Institution and universities nationwide, as well as experts in other countries hoping to study America’s fossil wonders.

“Everyone loses,” Peterson said.

Planning on key conferences has been on hold. Even the process of how new discoveries make their way to publication has come to a halt for anyone needing Interior Department paleontologists to review papers based on findings made on federal lands. “It’s harder to keep the general scientific process flowing,” Farke said, “even if it’s a paper by someone in another country.”

In Washington, D.C., where the National Museum of Natural History has been dark since early January, postdoctoral fellows such as Kendra Chritz have lost valuable time. She studies paleoecology as part of the museum’s Human Origins Program and was ready to complete her research when the shutdown hit. “The shutdown has put us fellows in a strange place of limbo,” she said.

Chritz couldn’t archive samples she had collected from specimens, couldn’t meet with her collaborators at the museum, couldn’t circulate the manuscript draft from her research.

Blocked from the museum’s facilities and collections, with a move scheduled in late February for a position at the University of Oregon, she spent the past few weeks with little she could accomplish.

“It has been a struggle to get anything done beyond the most basic tasks,” Chritz acknowledged Friday afternoon.

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