Demand for bones leaves prehistoric relics vulnerable to poachers
MOAB, Utah — For two years, ReBecca Hunt-Foster helped sweep the layers of dirt away, revealing the prehistoric treasures preserved below. With careful determination, the paleontologists uncovered millions of years of dust and silt, exposing the cache.
With each section they opened up at the Mill Canyon track site, Hunt-Foster felt a nagging, anxious dread mixing with the excitement of unearthing the find. In the back of her mind, she knew the moment she revealed a fossil, she was endangering it in a number of ways — to the elements, to time, but most importantly, to humans, who could carelessly or selfishly destroy in minutes what ancient layers had protected for millions of years. While she wanted people to enjoy the tracks, she feared the worst.
“When we first opened it up to the public, it was really hard for me to just sit in my car and watch,” Hunt-Foster said. “We’d worked so hard, it was my baby and I was worried something would happen.”
This unfortunate reality of paleontology is the mixed rush of excitement combined with the premeditated disappointment that a discovery will been ruined, and it has many examples here in eastern Utah in what some have referred to as the latest gold rush for fossils and bone. Though it’s illegal to remove dinosaur bones and many other paleontological resources from public lands, it’s still legal to do so on private property. The market for these historical treasures is strong and lucrative, and the resources available to monitor public lands is limited.
Less than 15 minutes away, tourist shops on Moab’s main street offer plenty of opportunities for visitors to take home souvenirs. Right next to the red dirt shirts and tchotchkes made from upcycled bike chains is jewelry made from genuine fossilized dinosaur bone, and some say this market is creating an avenue for black-market paleontological finds.
THE MOAB DISTRICT’S RESOURCES
The Bureau of Land Management manages nearly 22.9 million acres of public lands in Utah, representing about 42 percent of the state. Here in the West, public land stretches for wide swaths of the desert. These are the lands left behind by the homesteaders, the timber industry, the land developers, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the state and anyone else who had first dibs. Today, the BLM manages everything from mineral leasing and resources, grazing and recreation to film permits on these lands among other things, and the Moab Field Office is one of the most visited areas the BLM handles.
Here in the heart of the Colorado Plateau carved by the Colorado and Green rivers, the Moab Field Office encompasses 1.8 million acres of scenic canyon country. The BLM land around Moab includes a variety of resources — physical ones like arches and natural bridges of spectacular red rock, cultural ones such as Native American artifacts and petroglyphs, and scientifically significant finds like dinosaur fossils.
This district also attracts year-round visitors. In the summer, tour buses, four-wheel drive enthusiasts, hikers, bikers and more come to play. This time of year, the extreme sports enthusiasts show up — the climbers, the base jumpers, the skydivers, the slackliners. Combine that with helicopter tours, rafting and camping, and this is a busy place. Most of the sites are free or don’t cost more than a permit for certain activities, so it’s much cheaper to visit than the nearest national parks.
“We’re essentially the playground for metro Denver and metro Salt Lake (City),” said Rich Lloyd, supervisory district ranger.
The Moab Field Office’s district, which reaches all the way south to Mexican Hat, is easily one of the most-used areas the BLM manages in the entire U.S. From October 2014 to September 2015, officials counted more than 2.2 million visits to the sites in the district, according to Bill Stevens, BLM outdoor recreation planner. That’s more than 14 times as many visitors to BLM sites in all the eastern states.
And it doesn’t look like things are slowing down anytime soon.
“(Our visitation) tends to go up 5 or 6 percent every year, year after year,” Stevens said. “Last year for our campground visitation we set another all-time record and we keep on doing it.”
Recreation and tourism are big business here, too. The Moab office issued 10,560 special recreation permits in the same period of time — more than twice as many issued for BLM lands across the entire state of Colorado.
“It keeps you stepping and fetching, that’s for sure,” said Lloyd, who is one of four law-enforcement rangers charged with policing the Moab BLM district.
In addition to the heavy usage from visitors, Lloyd said this is one of the most highly regulated areas the BLM manages, mostly due to the concentration of varied types of recreation, the need to protect resources and manage travel as well as the incredible number of users.
Most of his interactions are non-confrontational. It’s a conversation with someone and making sure they have a permit for camping or climbing, or dealing with people driving off-trail where they shouldn’t. Other times it’s about keeping tabs on folks who have been camping on public lands for extended periods of time. Dispersed camping is allowed in one place for 14 days in one place, but then campers must move at least 25 miles away as the crow flies to a new spot to avoid overuse and problems that arise from permanent camps, such as human waste and litter.
Sometimes that simple interaction turns into something else, though. For example, Lloyd recalled a case last spring with a man who was walking around, picking up things off the ground and putting them in his pocket. At face value, it didn’t seem like much going on. But after the man consented to a search, officials found a bag of meth in his pocket full of rocks.
A BIT OF A CAUTIONARY TALE
Here in canyon country, there’s a window to this land before time in fossils, bones and tracks that continue to be discovered. The Mill Canyon track site north of Moab is only one of many places, though it’s the most famous these days because it has eight different types of tracks in an area less than the size of a football field, making it internationally renowned. The quality of the tracks is also remarkable, with some of the tracks in such good condition that visitors can see the mud squished up between the toes of the dinosaurs that once walked here.
Before Hunt-Foster was hired to be the BLM paleontologist charged with protecting these resources in the Moab district, she visited the Mill Canyon site and started helping document the tracks as soon as they were uncovered.
Because of the track’s proximity to well-used trails and Highway 191, there was a sense of urgency in trying to protect the tracks as they were exposed. This was no secret place in the middle of nowhere — and the public started frequenting the site for years before the BLM obtained grant money to construct the boardwalks, railings and interpretive signs meant to keep folks off the tracks to avoid damage and educate them about the site’s preservation and significance.
The Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail, just a short distance away from the track site, has been vandalized since the 1960s and is a kind of experiment in human behavior in relationship to the resources. It’s on the edge of the Moab fault, which has exposed older layers of Morrison formation containing fossils.
Several spots along the trail show evidence of bone pillaging, including a sauropod leg bone that has had half of it picked away in the past two years, despite the placement of obvious signs warning this is against the law. One of the signs has been ripped out and thrown off the ledge into the streambed below.
“People just pick away at it because they all want a little piece,” Hunt-Foster said. “Pretty soon, there won’t be much left.”
The nearby Mill Canyon track site that Hunt-Foster and others have worked to protect is a bit of a cautionary tale itself. The discoverer, a local resident named John Faustman Cowan, originally found some of the footprints in early 2009. While he reported the find to officials, he returned to the track site and illegally took silicon rubber molds of some of the prints around August 2010, according to federal court documents. The damage from these molds is still evident at the site.
Cowan later gave these molds to the University of Colorado Dinosaur Tracks Museum. He was charged two years later for the crime, according to court documents. But prosecutors dismissed the charges when he complied with a pre-trial agreement to stay off BLM land, look for a job and not leave Utah. The case against him was dismissed in 2013.
The only person convicted of vandalism or theft in the Moab district under the Paleontological Resources Protection Act, enacted in 2009, is Jared Ehlers, who pleaded guilty to removing a slab of stone with a three-toed dinosaur footprint from the Hell’s Revenge trail in February 2014. In an apology letter to the community, printed in the Moab Times-Independent, Ehlers said he “thought of what an awesome coffee table that would make and that my two young sons would love it.”
He admitted to hearing the track was stolen when he was making a base for the coffee table, and when law enforcement contacted him, he lied and denied taking the 150-pound slab.
“After I talked to the authorities I really panicked and disposed of it in the river,” he said.
Ehlers was sentenced to six months house arrest and one year of probation and ordered to pay more than $15,000 restitution to the search and rescue teams that attempted to recover the artifact from the river, according to court documents.
Hunt-Foster receives three or four reports of new sites every month, and is charged with recording and protecting those sites with all the others.
“It’s actually illegal for me to disclose where these sites are,” Hunt-Foster said. “But in Grand County alone, we have almost 1,000 fossil locations.”
One of her biggest concerns is that she won’t find out about a new location until it’s already been pillaged by bone prospectors, motivated by a market that has netted millions for rare or complete skeletons in recent years.
THE MARKET FOR BONES
Visitors to Moab can’t miss Lin Ottinger’s Moab Rock Shop, the biggest rock shop in eastern Utah that’s been in business since 1960 on North Main Street. The shop is part museum, part store, and includes specimens the 88-year-old Ottinger collected himself, including an apatosaurus femur (for sale for $4.5 million, cash only, according to the sign). To enter the store, visitors walk on a set of ancient lizard tracks leading to the front door. Inside, you can buy everything from ammonites to devil’s toenails. There are even dinosaur eggs from China, if you have $950 to spare.
Ottinger’s grandson, Matt, is running the shop on this November day. When asked where the inventory for the shop comes from, he replied that it was all collected from private land, or before it was illegal to collect on public land. Though they get people wanting to sell bones coming in now and then, he said they don’t buy from them.
“There is no market,” he said, refusing to answer further questions.
The idea that all the dinosaur bones for sale in this area came from private land or are somehow grandfathered from before laws were enacted is ridiculous, said Jim Kirkland, the state paleontologist with the Utah Geological Survey. The resources in Utah are rich — the state had more dinosaur species documented than any other country in the world, except China, according to Kirkland. Though PRPA was enacted in 2009 and is specific to paleontological resources, it’s been illegal to collect dinosaur bones from public lands since the Antiquities Act of 1906 protected objects of antiquity from vandalism or collection.
Grand County covers more than 2.3 million acres and 87 percent of the land is publicly owned, managed by state and federal agencies, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Tribal lands cover 8.4 percent, leaving just 4.3 percent in private ownership.
Considering the small amount of private property surrounding Moab, and the prevalence of paleontological resources being sold publicly or on the black market, “there’s no question that these things were collected illegally,” Kirkland said.
WHAT WILL IT TAKE?
Scott Anderson, who owns a shop called Triassic on Moab’s main street and sells polished dinosaur bones for jewelry or home décor, said he’s concerned about the amount of black-market fossils he’s solicited to buy on a regular basis.
“There’s a handful of people in town who are actively collecting dinosaur bones on public lands and they’re fairly easily identifiable, and I think everyone knows who they are, so avoiding those folks is step number one,” Anderson said.
Much of his current inventory on display came secondhand, from an auction after a famous rock shop in Hanksville called Shirley’s Rock Shop closed. His most recent acquisition came from an employee’s sister, who bought a trailer full of stuff for $250. When she told him there were five buckets of beautiful dinosaur bones, Anderson paid for the trailer and took the bones.
He gets offers regularly to buy bones, petrified wood and agate. These days, it’s mostly people passing through, like the guy in the Cadillac with the briefcase who tried to sell him a polished specimen a few weeks ago when he was eating lunch in front of the store. Some people still see dinosaur bones as another resource to mine on public lands, just like natural gas or timber.
“It’s money for nothing,” Anderson said. “It’s like a gold rush.”
One of the problems Anderson sees is the prevalence of artifacts used as lawn ornaments around town, which creates the impression that the resources are plentiful and not worth much.
“There’s probably more old dinosaur bones and petrified wood in people’s yards in Moab than there is out there on public lands,” Anderson said. “You can’t trace it, you can’t locate it, there’s no real way to put it back where it came from,” he said.
There’s not much emotional appeal to avoiding the purchase of dinosaur bones, Anderson said, unlike the campaigns to end trafficking of elephant tusks or Native American artifacts, which have a clear cultural connection.
“The dinosaurs are already dead. They don’t have any living relatives,” he said. “I think it’s a hard case to make because there’s tons and tons of material that’s already come out and sitting in people’s yards around town.”
Kirkland sees the lack of resources to fight the fossil wars and the market for the artifacts as the main problems.
“The biggest obstacle, and it always will be, is you can’t police our public lands effectively because you’ve only got a couple of rangers per million acres,” said Kirkland, who has worked for more than 40 years on the Colorado Plateau. “There’s just not enough money and it’s not practical to have people standing around saying, “Don’t take that, don’t throw your garbage there.’ People are breaking rules all the time.”
“The biggest thing that needs to happen is the public needs to police it,” Kirkland said. “The folks who love this country, call it in. Don’t approach them, because if it’s the bad guys, they might hurt you. But report it.”
Regarding paleontological resources that have changed hands many times, or were allegedly collected decades ago and no one really knows where they came from, like the buckets of bones from the trailer, Kirkland said those sales should cease.
“I don’t think we should even be supporting the second-generation trade of these items,” he said. “Where we need the laws is at the point of sale, like rock shops, or point of export. Those are fixed places we can police.”
At some point, though, he said the public needs to help protect the resource that belongs to them.
“All we have is education,” Kirkland said. “We have to have the public decide they don’t want this stuff going that route.”