Week in review: May 19

Can prairie dogs talk? Plus, dating very old rock stacks and a Bundy trial update.


Aging rock stacks

Rock cairns — deliberate mounds or stacks of stones — have been used throughout history to mark routes, as religious monuments and for other purposes. Researchers recently assessed the age of several “mysterious” stacks built on exposed areas of southeast Alaska’s Baranof Island, a clue that could help clarify the cairns’ function.

The scientists measured lichens covering the stacks, sampled dirt beneath some of them for radiocarbon dating and studied vegetation growing atop and between their rocks. The mounds were probably constructed between 500 and 1,500 years ago, the researchers estimate, before European settlement of the area — and well before the modern rash of rock stacking on public lands across the West. 

Example cairn on Cross Peak at about 700 m above sea level.

A freebie for public lands advocates

Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., announced this week that during this Congressional session, he will not reintroduce a bill to transfer millions of acres of federal land to state control. In Nevada and across the West, the federal land transfer movement has shifted toward attacks on the Antiquities Act and away from the kind of land transfer bills Amodei has introduced in the past.

Bundy standoff trial confusion continues

On May 16, government prosecutors in the first of three trials related to the 2014 armed standoff at Bundy Ranch, filed motions to dismiss some counts for two defendants. Gregory Burleson of Arizona and Todd Engel of Idaho were found guilty of several charges on April 24 but may not be retried on other counts that the jury was deadlocked on. A Nevada jury was hung on charges for Burleson and Engel’s four co-defendants; a retrial is set to begin June 26.

The government’s motion says it seeks the dismissal in part to save the court and U.S. Attorney’s office time and money. Fifteen other defendants, including Cliven Bundy, still remain to be tried. Need to brush up on the case? Here’s what to read.

Golden State fish face an uncertain future

Editorial Intern Emily Benson recommends reading a new report that found nearly three-quarters of California’s native salmon, trout and steelhead species could be gone for good within 100 years. Researchers at U.C. Davis and California Trout, a conservation nonprofit, found that of those 31 species, 45 percent could go extinct within 50 years. The culprit? A combination of drought, climate change and other human-caused factors like dams and habitat loss. The projections aren’t set in stone, however — the authors note that protecting river and spring ecosystems, properly managing groundwater and improving habitat could reverse the trends and help California’s fish thrive. 

Do prairie dogs talk to each other?

Correspondent Joshua Zaffos recommends this examination of whether prairie dog’s communication qualifies as language, from the New York Times: “There is now a consensus that numerous species, including birds and mammals, as well as octopuses and honeybees, have some degree of consciousness, that is, a subjective experience of the world — they feel, think, remember, plan and in some cases possess a sense of self.” Recently, in an HCN opinion column, a writer ruminated on the power dynamics at play in prairie dog colonies. 

EPA buyouts are coming

The Environmental Protection Agency will begin a buyout program for employees, setting aside $12 million to incentivize early retirement, E&E News reports. The move is similar to what the Obama administration did in 2014, when they used $16 million for buyouts. But under the Trump administration, the agency will be also be facing a 31 percent budget cut and a reduction of 3,100 employees.

Catch up on all the Western stories you need to follow this week:

Climate change is shrinking the West’s water supply

Where Trump has weakened public and scientific input

Conflicts dog Trump’s deputy Interior secretary nominee

How far will Canada go to honor tribal sovereignty?

The danger of urban ‘heat islands’

West Obsessed: The prison economy traps the innocent

Opinion: Death on the river

Opinion: Why we should fight against Utah’s war on public lands

And read our latest print issue from cover to cover.

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