Shutdown hangover hits federal agencies

JACKSON — Stressed out but pleased to be back is how Grand Teton National Park spokesman Andrew White described his colleagues’ attitudes after 35 involuntary days out of the office.

“There’s an overriding feeling of stress among our staff,” White said. “We’re working to mitigate that, but we don’t expect people to complete five weeks of work in one week.”

Some 300 federal employees who punch a clock in Teton County returned to work Monday, after a record 35-day shutdown caused by Congressional disagreement over funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. President Trump announced Friday there would be a three-week reopening, which allowed approximately 800,000 federal employees to resume their normal lives and catch up on pay.

Bridger-Teton National Forest spokeswoman Mary Cernicek conveyed a similar account at her North Cache Street office. Colleagues are busy but content, she said, wading through a month of work that piled up while offices were shuttered.

“Phones have been ringing like crazy,” Cernicek said. “The attitude is like, ‘Get out of my way, ’cause I’ve got a lot to catch up on.’ It feels good.”

While the emotional hangovers from the shutdown might be fleeting, it threatens to have lasting local effects on research, hiring seasonal employees and other routine federal business.

On the National Elk Refuge law enforcement was kept on during the shutdown to police the bison hunt, and staff biologist Eric Cole was allowed to work two to three days a week to determine if elk feeding should start. But other parts of Cole’s duties were derailed.

“I wish I could be working on everything I typically work on this time of year,” he told the News&Guide before returning to work, “and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to get back to work.”

Research using drones to measure elk density was put on hold, and he was told not to proceed with an analysis of potential management responses to chronic wasting disease’s arrival in the valley until the shutdown ended.

Even determining where elk were — a part of the feeding equation — was stymied because he lacked access to real-time GPS location data.

“The collar data would be helpful to look at elk distribution on and off the refuge,” he said. “This time I’m just relying on counts and observations, like the old days.”

In the first few days back at work, federal workers had to dig out, both from the piled-up workload and, literally, from the snow.

One employee at the Bridger-Teton was greeted by a leak in an office ceiling, which doused desktop paperwork.

“There was a little water damage,” Cernicek said. “It’s so sad — it’s a brand-new building — but no one was here to see it.”

At the Jackson National Fish Hatchery, staffers spent part of their Monday pumping a tanker truck full of cutthroat trout into the Sleeping Indian public fishing pond, employees announced on Facebook.

Some federal land managers weren’t able to turn all their normal public services back on overnight.

The refuge’s jointly managed Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center is scheduled to reopen today, meaning the makeshift visitor center at the Home Ranch parking lot bathroom building will be decommissioned.

In Teton park power surges had disabled credit card machines at entrance stations during the 35-day-long federal government shutdown, resulting in them going unstaffed Monday for troubleshooting. The gates came back online Tuesday.

There are also delays in restarting websites that were taken offline. Teton park’s backcountry permits can usually be reserved on starting Jan. 7, but that’s likely to be pushed back to Feb. 4, White said.

The most pervasive lasting impact White perceives from the shutdown is delays in staffing for the summer. The prime time for hiring is right now, he said, but many managers are well behind.

“The No. 1 thing that was affecting everybody was human resources-related issues,” White said in reference to a managers meeting. “Losing those five weeks was very impactful to that operation.”