Alert Palisade man’s discovery kicks off frenzy

Gould Construction worker Jesse Steele has been putting in long and tiring days, living in Palisade and commuting to and from his job site in Snowmass Village.

But it hasn’t been hard to muster up the energy to go to work in recent weeks, thanks to Steele’s discovery of mammoth bones Oct. 14 and his involvement in subsequent discoveries.

“I am so excited about getting to come back to work in the morning,” Steele said Thursday at the reservoir excavation site where numerous finds have been made by scientists working with contractors since Steele’s initial discovery.

Steele’s supervisor, Kent Olson of Rifle, has shared in the excitement of the digging and the discoveries. Besides finding the first mastodon fossil there, he was the first to realize what Steele initially had found.

Steele came across the mammoth bones late in the day, so Olson took them home that first night for safekeeping. He compared them to photos he found on the Internet.

“It didn’t take long to figure out what it was,” said Olson, who said the mammoth tooth “was a dead giveaway.”

Gould workers had been aware the possibility of a fossil find existed as they removed peat moss to make way for a municipal reservoir, and they were keeping their eyes open and digging carefully. In fact, Olson said that about a week before the Oct. 14 find, he discovered a bone that a scientific consultant on the project initially assumed, based on photos, to be that of a cow. But Olson said after other fossils were discovered, experts took a closer look at the easily confused bone, and it was determined to be a bison’s.

Steele said he was digging up peat moss Oct. 14 “when a couple of bones came up.” He got out of his bulldozer to take a closer look, then saw a jawbone and realized he had come across something unusual and stopped his work.

“And then it went crazy after that. It was like every day we’d find something,” he said.

“He’s a great bulldozer driver. We love this guy,” Kirk Johnson, chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, told visitors to the dig site Thursday. “He drives the bulldozer like some people slice cheese, so surgically.”

Olson and Steele’s work shifted from moving big volumes of dirt before Oct. 14 to what Olson called “blade running,” with Steele slowly peeling up 6-inch dirt layers with a bulldozer while Olson walked alongside to stop Steele if something turned up. Olson also has been behind the controls, and Thursday found him helping scientists excavate a site where mastodon fossils thought to be more than 40,000 years old were being unearthed.

This actually isn’t Steele’s first fossil discovery. He said he once found dinosaur bones in Rangely, where he grew up on construction machinery, following in the same career path as his father.

But he said the Snowmass Village discovery stands out in being so historic, and he and Olson said they are honored and privileged to be a part of it.

“We don’t get to do this very often,” Steele said.

Indeed, Olson said, going back to normal excavation work will be a transition for him.

“I think it’s going to be almost like going from a Lamborghini to a Volkswagen. Everything might be a little boring from here on out,” he said.

Then again, he’s now got a fossil-hunting bug that may be hard to shake.

“I think I’ll always look, on every job,” he said.


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