Wanted: More pastures for West’s overpopulated wild horses
By MEAD GRUVER
Sunday, March 10
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — If you ever wished to gaze at a stomping, snorting, neighing panorama of Western heritage from your living-room window, now could be your chance.
A classic image of the American West — wild horses stampeding across the landscape — not only has endured through the years but has multiplied past the point of range damage. Through May 3, the U.S. government is seeking more private pastures for an overpopulation of wild horses.
Many consider rounding up wild horses to live out their lives on private pastures a reasonable approach to a tricky problem. Wild horses, after all, not only have romantic value, they are protected by federal law.
Just keep in mind a few of the dozens of requirements for getting paid by the government to provide wild horses a home.
“It’s not like you can do this in your backyard, or even a 5 acre (2 hectare) plot,” said Debbie Collins, outreach specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program in Norman, Oklahoma.
You need a lot of fenced-in land, enough to sustain anywhere from 200 to 5,000 healthy horses. Exactly how much land depends on pasture quality as determined by the government, but you can safely assume several hundred if not thousands of acres (hectares).
The pastured horses typically are left on their own with little human intervention. Still, they require continuous water and basic shelter from the elements, such as trees or a canyon; supplemental forage; and corrals for loading and unloading from trailers.
Participants in the private-pasture system must live in 14 Western and Midwestern states, from eastern Washington to the Texas Panhandle. Over two-thirds of the 37 existing off-range pastures are in Oklahoma and Kansas.
And: These horses aren’t pets. They’ve had little exposure to people. Many are over 5 years old and therefore not ideal for training and individual adoption or sale, other options available through the BLM.
Still, there’s no shortage of interest in the off-range pasture program. People call all the time asking for details, Collins said.
“My only advice would be to go into it with your eyes wide open,” said Dwayne Oldham, a former Wyoming state veterinarian who has taken in wild horses on his family’s Double D cattle ranch outside Lander, Wyoming, since 2015.
Working with the government can be demanding, but providing for the over 130 horses on the Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary on the ranch isn’t too difficult, Oldham said.
The sanctuary is a little different from most private wild-horse pastures: It’s open to the public. Tourists headed to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks increasingly stop there.
About 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the south, cattle ranchers, wild horse advocates and the BLM have been embroiled in decades of lawsuits over wild horses in an area of mostly unfenced, interspersed public and private lands called the Checkerboard. The booming wild horse population there competes with cattle for forage and water in the high desert, the ranchers claim.
The BLM abides by the 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which protects wild horses and burros on BLM land in 10 Western states, attorneys for the government say.
“We want to be part of the solution and not just the adversary,” Oldham said.
A group often involved in wild-horse litigation, the American Wild Horse Campaign, says darting mares with contraceptives is the best answer to overpopulation but is underused. Roundups only encourage compensatory breeding and overpopulation, said Grace Kuhn with the group.
However, the group doesn’t oppose off-range pastures as an alternative to keeping wild horses in corrals for long periods.
“We do advocate that if the government is going to be removing wild horses from the range, long-term is more cost-effective than short-term holding,” Kuhn said.
Over 55,000 more horses and burros live wild in the West than the roughly 27,000 the BLM says can thrive in harmony with the landscape.
Adoptions and sales through the Wild Horse and Burro Program have recovered to over 3,400 a year after hitting a low of about 1,800 in 2014.
But while the number of off-range pastures has boomed from just a couple in the 1990s, the number of horses on them hovers very close to their current carrying capacity of about 36,500.
The number of pastured wild horses is determined mainly through roundups and adoptions. Stallions are gelded and kept at different off-range pastures than mares, preventing reproduction aside from the occasional pregnant mare rounded up from the wild.
How many new off-range pastures are established through the latest bid solicitation, the first of its kind since 2016, will depend on costs and how many existing ones get renewed, Collins said.
“It’s just a happier, healthier environment for a horse to be able to be out in a pasture,” she said.
Follow Mead Gruver at https://twitter.com/meadgruver
Ancient DNA is a powerful tool for studying the past – when archaeologists and geneticists work together
March 11, 2019
Elizabeth Sawchuk, Postdoctoral Fellow and Research Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Stony Brook University (The State University of New York)
Mary Prendergast, Professor of Anthropology, Saint Louis University – Madrid
Disclosure statement: The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
DNA has moved beyond esoteric science and into the center of everyday conversations about identity, culture and politics. It’s also reshaping stories about the past as advances allow scientists to extract ancient DNA (aDNA) from skeletons found at archaeological sites.
With each ancient genetic sequence, scientists learn new information about how people moved around and interacted in the ancient world. In some cases, this has helped overturn theories and resolve age-old debates.
But the aDNA “revolution” has also caused friction among geneticists, archaeologists and others over how this research is done. As archaeologists who collaborate on aDNA projects, we’ve witnessed these tensions firsthand. What lies at the heart of this rift, and how can these disciplines work together to better research humanity’s past?
What’s behind the aDNA revolution?
Ancient DNA changes how scientists do research, rather than the questions being asked. Geneticists are working on the same problems that archaeologists, anthropologists and linguists have wrestled with for decades, aimed at understanding transitions in the past and the roots of the modern world.
But instead of looking at things people left behind, geneticists are interested in the people themselves. Skeletons are the only direct connection to individuals who experienced life in the past. Biological anthropologists have long studied bones and teeth looking for clues about people’s origins and lives. Now, geneticists can look at their DNA – providing a new level of detail and insight.
The science behind aDNA is relatively new. The first fully sequenced ancient human genome – from a man who lived about 4,000 years ago in Greenland – was published only in 2010. At first this research was limited to skeletons from cold climates where DNA molecules are more likely to preserve. Success rates have steadily improved with cheaper and more efficient laboratory techniques and methods that target the most informative parts of the genome.
One of the most important breakthroughs has been the discovery that a small part of the skull – the bony casing around the inner ear known as the petrous – is a rich source of aDNA, even in poorly preserved skeletons from hot climates. This finding has led to a massive increase in the pace and scale of aDNA studies, with thousands of individuals sequenced in 2018 alone and sudden widespread interest in archaeological skeletons in museums throughout the world.
aDNA has thrust archaeologists and geneticists into new partnerships, where one side provides archaeological samples and questions, and the other additional questions, specialized labs and funding. These specialists, with different training and distinct work cultures, don’t always see eye to eye on study design, research pace or interpretation of results. Additionally, institutions and countries may not have explicit aDNA policies in place, leaving research teams and museum curators to navigate research and sampling protocols on a case by case basis. This has elicited concern from archaeologists, some of whom may worry the cart is so far beyond the horse that we should just cancel the trip.
But like radiocarbon dating in the 20th century, aDNA has already fundamentally changed archaeology and will only become more prevalent. Understanding current misgivings now is the best way to move the science forward in a way that benefits everyone.
Critiques of aDNA can be grouped into three categories: interpretive, ethical and systemic.
1) Interpreting the stories told by aDNA
Many concerns focus on how aDNA results are used to answer questions about the past. Most aDNA studies come from population genetics, a subfield that looks at major demographic changes over time – usually attributed to people moving or mixing with other groups, or both.
But identifying these processes doesn’t tell researchers why they happened or detect their impacts on culture. Some critics suggest geneticists construct sweeping regional narratives about migration and population change based on a small number of skeletal samples. Others point out that this research relies on naming and grouping ancient peoples based on cultural evidence like pottery styles, which may or may not reflect biological relatedness. Ancient genetic sequences are also usually compared to modern ones from living people, who have their own complicated histories and are grouped based on language or ethnicity or both at the time of DNA sampling, making for potentially problematic comparisons.
Ultimately, interpreting aDNA results involves many of the same archaeologically informed assumptions as other studies of bones, pots and tools. Yet the scientific aura of aDNA means findings are presented to the world through the media as more objective, stoking archaeologists’ frustrations over apparent “molecular chauvinism.”
2) Balancing ethical obligations
Ethical issues with aDNA affect both the living and the dead. In order to extract sequences, archaeological human remains must be ground up under special sterile conditions. Some targeted parts of the body – like petrous bones and teeth – provide valuable information about our species’ evolution and history. Since there’s not an infinite supply of archaeological bones, many scholars are calling for regulations to protect skeletal collections and ensure that future researchers can access them.
Today’s scientists must also contend with past colonial practices that removed skeletons and artifacts from their countries of origin and sent them to Europe and North America, raising questions about who should now give permission for their study.
Beyond the destruction of ancestors, aDNA findings can pose other harm to indigenous peoples. Because most aDNA studies have focused on skeletons excavated decades ago, few explicitly mention consultation with descendant groups. However, aDNA studies can have negative consequences for these communities. They can complicate land claims and repatriation efforts, undermine oral histories and reveal stigmatizing information like genetic susceptibility to disease. Findings about the past have present-day political implications depending on how they are received and mobilized.
3) Designing a new science
Underlying all these concerns are apprehensions about how archaeogenetics is developing as a field. A recent article in the popular press painted a dramatic picture of a high stakes game in which a handful of labs dominate access to samples and groundbreaking discoveries. Archaeologists are portrayed as fearful or helpless, exchanging samples for a minor authorship role without the ability to offer their own interpretations. But this hardly describes all archaeologists, many of whom occupy prominent positions on aDNA projects.
Yes, competition for samples can factor into the fast pace of research and exacerbate some of the issues around aDNA. It is wrong though, to place blame on labs alone. An entire system comprising universities, scientific journals, funding bodies and the media stands ready to reward the next big discovery. Pointing the finger at individuals or labs only fosters division, pushing people away from aDNA research without addressing issues or finding solutions.
Mapping out the future of aDNA
Fortunately, change is already happening.
Responses to the first wave of aDNA studies called for better integration of archaeological and genetic data and more nuanced questions about smaller-scale cultural and population shifts. Such change may end up occurring organically as the bar for publication shifts away from single sequences to studies of hundreds of individuals.
Strict standards require genomic data to be made public, and aDNA research has become a model for the open science movement. This means more comparative data will become available over time to tackle fine-grained questions about regional histories. As aDNA is brought to bear on increasingly complex questions, archaeologists will need to take on more equitable roles in research design, interpretation and integration of multiple types of evidence.
The field is also making headway on ethical issues. Ethics statements are appearing in journal articles. Museums are establishing their own guidelines. Archaeologists have stepped forward to suggest best practices for sampling and consulting with indigenous stakeholders.
There has also been a push for better communication and outreach. The Summer internship for INdigenous peoples in Genomics (SING) is designed to help dismantle barriers between descendant communities and scientists. aDNA sessions and entire conferences bringing geneticists and archaeologists together are becoming more common. Establishing discipline-wide best practices and support through professional networks will reduce the burden on individuals to ensure research is done the right way.
Communication and cooperation go a long way, but fixing the system ultimately requires a shift in how science is funded and rewarded. And the public has a key role to play as the taxpayers who fund scientific research and consume its findings. A scientifically literate society can demand work that meets ethical guidelines and provides meaningful insights about our past. Together, scientists and the public can set the tone for what aDNA research becomes and how we use it to explore our shared human heritage.
Old stone walls record the changing location of magnetic north
March 12, 2019
Author: John Delano, Distinguished Teaching Professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, University at Albany, State University of New York
Disclosure statement: Prior to my retirement in late 2016, John Delano received research funding from NASA. No current funding. John Delano is currently a volunteer interpreter at three sites in Colonial Williamsburg, VA.
Partners: University at Albany, State University of New York provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
When I was a kid living in southern New Hampshire, my family home was on the site of an abandoned farmstead consisting of massive stone foundations of quarried granite where dwellings once stood. Stone walls snaked throughout the forest. As I explored the deep woods of tall oaks and maples, I wondered about who had built these walls, and why. What stories did these walls contain?
Decades later, while living in a rural setting in upstate New York and approaching retirement as a geologist, my long dormant interest was rekindled by treks through the neighboring woods. By now I knew that stone walls in New England and New York are iconic vestiges from a time when farmers, in order to plant crops and graze livestock, needed to clear the land of stones. Tons and tons of granite had been deposited throughout the region during the last glaciation that ended about 10,000 years ago.
By the late 1800s, nearly 170,000 subsistence farming families had built an estimated 246,000 miles of stone walls across the Northeast. But by then, the Industrial Revolution had already started to contribute to the widespread abandonment of these farms in the northeastern United States. They were overgrown by forests within a few decades.
During my more recent walks through the woods, on a whim I used a hand-held GPS unit to map several miles of stone walls. And that was how I realized that in addition to being part of an American legacy, their locations record a centuries-long history of the Earth’s wandering magnetic field.
Connecting the walls with historical maps
The complex array of walls that emerged from my GPS readings made no sense to me until I found an old map of my town’s property boundaries at the local historical society. Suddenly I saw that some of the stone walls on my map lay along property lines from 1790. They marked boundaries.
My subsequent searches of church records and decades of the federal census revealed the names of these farm families and details of their lives, including annual yields from their harvests. I started to feel like the stone walls were letting me connect with the long-gone folks who had worked this land.
Now the wheels in my scientist’s mind really started spinning. Did the original land surveys from the 18th and 19th centuries in this part of town still exist? What were the magnetic compass-bearings of those boundaries on the original surveys?
I knew that the location of magnetic north drifts over time due to changes in the Earth’s core. Could I determine its drift using stone walls and the old land surveys? My preliminary map of stone walls and a few historical surveys showed that the approach had potential.
To have any scientific value, though, this work had to encompass much larger areas. I needed a different strategy for finding and mapping stone walls. Luckily I found two troves of useful information. First, the New York State Archives had hundreds of the original land surveys from the 18th and 19th centuries. And secondly, airborne LiDAR (light detection and ranging) images were publicly available that could reveal stone walls hidden beneath the forest canopy over much larger areas than I could cover on my own by foot.
Tracking magnetic north’s drift over time
The Earth rotates on its axis once every 24 hours. The location of that spin axis in the Northern Hemisphere is called true north, and wanders very slowly. The location of true north can be considered stationary, though, on a timescale of a few centuries.
But that’s not where a compass aims when it points north. The location of the north magnetic pole is not only at a different location from true north, but also changes rapidly – currently about one degree per 10 years in New England.
The difference in direction between true north and magnetic north (at a specific time and location on the Earth) is known as the magnetic declination. Global information about historic variations in magnetic declination is currently based on thousands of magnetic compass-bearings recorded in ships’ navigational logs from 1590 onwards.
But now my work on 726 miles of stone walls provides an independent check on magnetic declination between 1685 and 1910.
Here’s the logic. When settlers were piling up those stones along the boundaries of their plots, they were using property lines that had been laid out according to the surveyors’ compass readings. Using LiDAR images, the bearings of those stone walls could be determined with respect to true north and compared with the surveyors’ magnetic bearings. The difference is the magnetic declination at the time of the original survey.
For example, the original surveys divided New Hampshire’s Stoddard township into hundreds of lots with boundaries with magnetic compass-bearings of N80 degrees W and N14 degrees E in 1768. As the land was cleared for farming, owners built stone walls along and within those 1768 surveyed boundaries.
Now one can compare the bearings of those stone wall-defined boundaries relative to magnetic north and true north today. The difference shows that the magnetic declination at this location in 1768 was 7.6 ± 0.3 degrees W. That’s a good match for scientists’ current geophysical model. Since the magnetic declination at this location today is 14.2 degrees W, the direction to magnetic north at this location has moved about 6.6 degrees further west since 1768.
Data from these stone walls strengthen the current geophysical model about the Earth’s magnetic field.