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Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

In light of deficits, budget cuts are always in the works.

Aside from the social upheaval in Wisconsin, others feel budget cuts are taking dramatic blows at wildlife conservation efforts and their progress in recent years.

Take the gray wolf, for example. Long seen as a nuisance by ranchers and farmers who lose livestock, wolves have been fiercely protected by some and adamantly defended by others.

A recent bill, intended to “make appropriations” for government agencies such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Interior, previously included article 1704, which would strip gray wolves of their endangered species status in a handful of states in the Northwest, including parts of Idaho, Montana, Utah, Oregon and Washington. Since earlier this week, section 1713 has been removed (I suspect because of lawsuits in those states). Here’s what I could find, though.

The bottom line: not many people foresaw the gray wolf’s appearance in the bill.

If passed, the Department of the Interior will maintain only 300 gray wolves in these areas, granting authorities to cull the rest, which may result in an 82 percent reduction in the current population of 1,700 wolves in these areas, says Natural Resources Defense Council Director Andrew Wetzler. He also thinks this number is well below what’s needed to maintain a healthy population in the long-run. Mind you, wolves have remained on the endangered species list all other states except Alaska, Minnesota and Hawaii (independent of some “experimental” populations).

What’s concerning to me are the motives for this change — who’s benefiting here? Elk herders who lose many individuals to wolves have much to gain, and I agree that they have the right to protect their livelihoods as well. But will this measure eventually free up hunting on these “experimental/non-essential” wolf populations?

It’s hard to tell at this point. But it’s more than apparent that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Plan will take quite the blow if this version of the budget is passed. This year alone, these programs are losing some $88 million to protect endangered species (see section 1708). The budget proposes instead maintaining nearly $2.5 million for this purpose.

The issue also came up in 2010 as a federal court ruled against delisting the gray wolf because the state of Wyoming didn’t have an adequate conservation program in place to manage populations like Idaho and Montana did. The judge’s ruling maintained that wolves needed to be viewed as a population rather than individuals. Here’s the gray wolf’s range over time.

Does this budget balancing counter that attitude?

In my opinion, it does because wolf populations do not understand or adhere to state lines. They don’t know when they’re entering Montana versus Idaho or Wyoming — or vice versa. Ironically, the reason why gray wolves were not taken off the endangered species in these states this summer was because Wyoming would not restrict hunting practices. Now the situation seems to have reversed, as wolves that remain protected under the Endangered Species Act in Wyoming are offered little protection if they cross state lines north or westward into Montana and Idaho.

Researching the gray wolf issue also emphasizes the point that small portions of legislation — highly contentious ones at that — are often reduced remarkably in the legislative process. I acknowledge the need for maintaining the conciseness and brevity of the bill, but I still feel this decision hasn’t been discussed extensively by all parties involved.

Wildlife advocates and government lawyers have already decided to square off over the issue in Missoula, Mont. It looks like both sides will meet in court again on March 24. I certainly hope the issue will be resolved using the best science and expert opinion. And the fact remains that other conservation programs are destined to suffer from these cuts as well. I’m unsure how they will be able to stay above water with a several million budget cut looming over their heads.


This week, Willie, Brittany, Dorothy, Barbie and my animal behavior expert professor Patricia McConnell demonstrated sheep herding for my zoology class.

Dr. McConnell brought three of her sheep for the demonstration. Brittany is the whiter one, Dorothy is sandwiched in the middle and Barbie is the sheep closest to the camera (Photo by M. English).

Rather than meeting at our usual lecture hall, students were herded (pun intended) to the campus’ stock pavilion to watch the demonstration. UW-Madison, like other research-heavy institutions, has quite the agriculture extension presence (UGA, where I studied as an undergrad, has great ag resources as well).

Historically speaking, herding dogs are the most efficient way to round up small livestock. In the case of Willie, a brilliant 4-year-old Border Collie, his goal is to herd the sheep towards his owner, Dr. McConnell.

McConnell and her canine companion’s intense connection and months of training definitely show. In the video below (by yours truly), you’ll learn how the length of whistle signals — as well as their pitch — affects Willie’s actions and approaches to the sheep. Amazingly, one whistle can symbolize a message as specific as “Willie, herd the pack counterclockwise this time.”

The fact that dogs display natural, predatory tendencies contributes the activity’s success as well. Imagine a non-predator such as a pig, for instance, trying to motion a herd of livestock forward. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s better to take advantage of canine/bovid history — a longstanding predator and prey relationship between wolves (dogs’ closest ancestors) and sheep. Stalking behavior alone is enough to get the sheep moving.

I also learned a great deal about the imaginary line spanning across the shoulders of prey animals called the “flight zone.” Essentially, you’ll make an animal nervous if you approach them by this angle, especially if you’re in a stalking position. To make this alarmlike system work, prey animals such as sheep have eyes positioned looking outward on the sides of the head to allow for a better view of possible predators.

After a bout of herding (and after I turn off my camera), McConnell switches to a lulling, drawn out tone to slow down Willie’s behavior.

“That’ll do, Willie, that’ll do,” she says softly. Willie drops to a laying position with his paws directly in front of him, awaiting the next command. Despite the sheep huddled a few feet away from him, his eyes remain fixed on McConnell. The pair’s bond is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing the connections we can make with animals.

Sorry Cesar Millan, but McConnell and Willie’s skills take the cake — or bone, I guess you can say.

Dermestid Beetles Cleaning a Skull
Photo by Sklmsta/Wikimedia Commons

The following is a short account — in list form — of my experiences working at a natural history museum.

1. You receive a position at the local natural history museum and volunteer to work in the zooarchaeology lab, where animal remains are transformed into osteological specimens. An archaeologist may ask the lab: “I found these bone fragments at my archaeological site. What animal did they belong to? Were people eating these animals or using them for something else?” The lab answers these questions by comparing fragments with thousands of reference bones of hundreds of species.

2. To be honest, you know little about how these comparative skeletons come to be.

3. Your boss asks if you want to be in charge of the “Bug Room.” With slight confusion, you oblige, thinking you’ll be pinning and cataloging insects.

4. The first day on the job you’re handed a paper outlining how to desiccate animal bones with dermestid beetles.

5. You still want to believe that you’ll be pinning dusty insects to felted cardboard.

6. You accept the reality that you’ll be doing no such thing the first time you enter the Bug Room. Your first task is to clean up the remains of the previous beetle colony. The small, six-by-fifteen foot room (or so) holds its horrors and treasures nicely. In several dry aquaria, you notice the forgotten skulls of more than 100 rodents entombed in the bottom of egg cartons nestled on a cotton bed sprinkled with dead beetles. The skulls, with their long incisors, are no accident. Most have ID tags woven through their teeth and empty orbits like floss. Every once in a while, you’ll pick up one that still holds the remnants of a shriveled, dusty brain — parts that someone was unable to remove. Most are tangled in strands and puffs of cotton, a dermestid beetle’s ideal resort. You soon learn that the specimens belong to a mammalogist. Indeed, skulls and skins are the stuff of mammalogists.

7. On the second day of cleaning, you learn that listening to NPR while disentangling skulls from their cottony graves is OK. Actually, it makes you feel less lonely. Your spirit is broken when you hear Terry Gross come on the radio to chat about death and dying with her next guest. After picking the remaining flesh off of the skulls and listening to a pompous author sell death, you think you need some real “fresh air.” You look around, thinking about your own demise. Note to self: Don’t let anyone desiccate me after I go.

8. “Bug room” is short for the dermestid beetle bone cleaning room. Dermestid beetles eat flesh. Surprisingly, you find that they’re extremely picky. You sigh in relief that your gloved hands aren’t on the menu.

9. You learn that after dead animals are defleshed and picked clean by the beetles and their ravenous larvae, you’ll need to soak their bones in water and a small amount of detergent to draw out the oil and fat. Grease from bone and marrow causes specimens to decay — the last thing you want for your immortal bone collection.

10. You ask the mammalogist to pick up her rodent skulls. She never comes.

11. You realize that bone desiccation can be a drawn-out process. The walls and shelves lining the room contain hundreds of specimens, still waiting to be added to the lab’s collection. You look at the jars, lined up neatly across the wall, situated by progress. The specimens to the far right near the window are almost done — their water is almost crystal clear compared to the dark brown water of recently added bones. Some jars are labeled with dusty Post-It notes, detailing the specimens’ last breath of fresh air.

12. Animals whose bones are too big to fit in recycled glass jars are steeped in giant bins or trash cans. You learn that all specimens must be “poured off,” meaning that the water has to be changed. It quickly becomes apparent that ducks and fish have quite the oily bones.

13. You come upon a large barrel and read: “Donkey (Equus a. a.), ♂, 1984.” You’re unsure of when the specimen was last poured off. You should check inside — after all it’s your job, right? After cracking open the lid, you almost vomit at the stench and sight. You try to forget the smell and step outside in the winter cold for fresh air. You learn to take breaks like this a lot.

14. The several gallon trash can is too heavy for you to pour into the drain on the floor on your own. This one will have to wait.

15. You can’t forget the smell. Lunch, dinner and perhaps tomorrow’s breakfast are on hold, if not canceled.

16. You ask the previous Bug Room keeper to help. He agrees to give a hand next week. “Make sure to wear old clothes,” he warns.

17. Happy to have a veteran by your side, you crack open the donkey’s watery grave again a week later. It’s heavy enough that it takes both of you to pour it off. At least two inches of light brown and pink mold line the surface of the stagnant water — sort of like butter congealing. No matter how hard you try, the fleshy mess spills on you. Your somewhat old shoes you were saving for when you begin gardening turn into the shoes you’ll never wear outside of the lab again.

18. You pour fresh water over the bones with a hose, providing clean liquid to make dirty again. This process will repeat itself until the water appears mostly clear, which indicates that the majority of the oil has been extracted from the bone.

19. You realize your sense of smell will never be the same.

20. And neither will you.

21. You’re thankful to be able to contribute to a frightening and useful form of science — the type that gives life to unfortunate accidents. These donated animals — some the mild victims of road kill and others donated by the state — will live on gracing the shelves of the museum forever, you think to yourself.

21. Your time there comes to an end and you move on. Two years later, your mind is filled with the same grotesque images, the same proud feeling. You can’t help but wonder who’s watching over the donkey. Who will resurrect him next?


Bone desiccation videos

Here’s a video you can only watch on Youtube (it won’t embed).

(source: Marshall Space Flight Center's Marshall Image Exchange)

Fifty years ago yesterday, donning a custom ape spacesuit, a chimpanzee named Ham was catapulted beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

Competing with the Soviet Union’s space program, NASA rushed to launch an animal into space before sending astronauts. Too bad Yuri Gagarin beat them to it.

Ham went up anyway in a Mercury Redstone Launch vehicle, where he came back down into the Atlantic after 16 minutes.

Ham, after landing (source: Great Images in NASA)

Ham wasn’t alone, though. Between the United States and Soviet Union, a handful of animals made the unknowing journey to space (or didn’t make it, sadly), including all of the rhesus macaques named “Albert,” Belka, Strelka and Laika — stray dogs from Russia, and Ham and Enos the chimps. Of course, this list isn’t complete, but it gives you an idea of which animals were used.

Mary Roach‘s recent book Packing for Mars details some of these experiments wonderfully. Some have happy endings, others don’t. She even visited Ham’s supposed grave in New Mexico. In case you’re wondering, Ham died later in life — a happy and chubby chimp.

Roach also points out that some astronauts (namely, John Glenn) were angry at NASA for sending nonhuman primates up first. Thinking chimps didn’t serve a purpose, Glenn thought Ham unjustly stole the spotlight. He wanted nothing to do with the primates.

Au contraire, Mr. Glenn.

Ham, who had no clue (really) where he was headed, inadvertently ensured the safety of these astronauts who followed. The question is: Would I launch animals into space today? Probably not. But it disheartens me to hear that some of these space legends bashed their primate brethren — animals with no idea of what was going on.

If veteran astronauts won’t say it, I will.

This banana’s for you, Ham.

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About Me

Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.

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