Among the dramatic, rocky landscapes of the southwest United States lies the last great North American fossil field: a striking area of plateaus and geological formations that has offered u some of the world’s most interesting specimens.
It is no less than “a palaeontologist’s dream come true,” according to Barry Albright from the University of North Florida, who has spent two decades working in and around the area of south-central Utah that was designated as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) back in 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton.
“It’s absolutely staggering,” he says. “The whole of the Mesozoic is exposed out there. Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous, but particularly the late Cretaceous.
Basically, you’ve got almost a continuous sequence from rocks that represent about 95 million years ago up to about 72 million.”
But things could be about to take a turn for the worse. In late 2017, current President Donald Trump ordered that the protected area be slashed from the original 728,000 hectares to just 406,240. Mining and fracking companies are poised and eager to move onto the newly freed-up land.
Scientists have already been pushed off private land in the US by so-called commercial palaeontologists, who sell fossils at trade shows and to the highest bidder. New oil and gas extraction and mining would ruin even more resources scientists have yet to discover.
The loss to science, to museums and to the general public would be incalculable, Albright says. David Polly, from Indiana University, the immediate past president of the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontologists, is equally worried.
“A national monument is something that is established specifically to conserve resources that are historical or architecturally or scientifically important.
It adds literal, physical protection,” he says. “All the Triassic has been cut out and a lot of the earlier half of the Cretaceous has been cut out.”
What remains, he says, is “a fundamentally different half”.
Polly estimates that at least a third of the finds over the past 20 years in the GSENM would never have been discovered if it weren’t for the designation.
One of the major concerns among the palaeontological community is a perceived conflict of interest on the part of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal body that manages both the GSENM and the excised area, now called the Kenab-Escalante Planning Area (KEPA). One of its duties is to oversee the lease of millions of hectares of public land to oil and gas companies.
BLM is in the process of developing a new management plan. Although that usually takes years, the final draft is expected out this northern spring. There will be a public comment period before it is made into law.
The Society of Vertebrate Palaeontologists isn’t waiting around to see what happens, however. It is suing the Trump administration, asserting that it is illegal for a president to remove monument protections.
Other environmental and outdoor groups have also sued. The court has ruled against a government motion to dismiss the consolidated case, and proceedings are expected to continue sometime this year.
One of the key areas no longer protected by a smaller GSENM is the Tropic Shale, which is home to a prehistoric ocean. It captured a slew of extinctions when the ocean turned anoxic – prehistoric sharks, plesiosaurs and turtles suddenly died and were stuck, preserved, and petrified in the sandy bottom.
“Practically everything we yank out of there is new to science,” Albright says. “The most common –
though they are not common by any means – are the plesiosaurs”, a clade of amphibious reptiles that lived from about 203 to 66 million years ago.
Albright has been involved with the discovery of a few new species in the area, and he recalls in particular the day a colleague working on a plesiosaur excavation went for a lunchtime walk and returned holding “this really interesting-looking toe bone”.
It was clearly the bone of a land-dwelling dinosaur, but no-one was quite sure what a dinosaur was doing in the Tropic Shale. “So, we went to the site, and sure enough there are dinosaur bones eroding out of the hill,” Albright says.
The toe was from a therizinosaur, and it was a rare and exciting find in the US. Albright speculates that the animal died and floated out into the sea where it sank and petrified to become part of the historical record.
“Therizinosaurs weren’t supposed to be in North America. They were described from Mongolia, Eastern Asia,” he says. “All of a sudden we’ve got the most complete, late Cretaceous therizinosaur in North America. That was just crazy.”
While most of the ongoing digs in the GSENM will remain within the new boundaries, scientists are concerned that critical areas are being excised – land that hasn’t yet been explored and significant time periods.
The “national monument” designation allows researchers to access a stream of research funding, provides a palaeontologist to coordinate and oversee projects, and preserves scientific and historic resources. Joe Sertich, a vertebrate palaeontologist and curator of dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, says all the sites his team is working on remain in the monument area, if only by a metre or so. That’s because he was one of those consulted by BLM during the drafting process for the new boundaries.
Unfortunately, capturing excavations happening at this very moment doesn’t consider future findings, and palaeontologists haven’t begun to cover the entire monument area. They started 20 years ago and have been expanding their search.
“We’ve slowly been working our way out,” says Sertich. “When they redrew the boundaries, they were trying to preserve the fossils, and they didn’t take into account that we haven’t expanded our search yet.”
In the meantime, palaeontologists working outside the new boundaries are unsure of what will happen next. According to the BLM, in the 2017 season there were 11 surface permits on land that will end up in KEPA. Monument palaeontologist Alan Titus says his team is already working with district management teams, so that permits will transition smoothly from one jurisdiction to another.
However, he points out that some of the most important fossils weren’t found in the actual monument area, much less the area that is going to be re-designated. He also has concerns about losing the protections offered by national monument status. It could diminish the preservation of fossils or lead to profiteering.
“I don’t want to speculate, I don’t want to look into my crystal ball, but I do have … a little angst,” he says. “My biggest concern as a resource manager is that casual use now becomes authorised on lands that are now outside the monument; so, in other words, collecting of invertebrate and palaeobotanical fossils will be authorised.”
On ordinary BLM land, you need a permit to collect vertebrate fossils, which include dinosaurs, fish,
reptiles, and “uncommon invertebrate fossils.” Once collected, those pieces fall into the public realm, usually under the guardianship of the museum or university that led the excavation. On public land – although not in the designated national monument – it is legal to collect “common invertebrate fossils,” which include plants, molluscs and trilobites, for personal use.
Unfortunately, not everyone knows the difference between common and uncommon, vertebrate and invertebrate fossils.
“Casual collecting could lead to all sorts of concerns, unintentional and intended,” Titus says.
“Even though the vertebrate fossils are protected by federal law, if there’s another resource out there that’s co-occurring with them, that’s legal to pick up, you know, bad people can always plead ignorance.
“And then unintended consequences are people just picking up curious things to them, not realising that it’s an important fragment from a skull that’s some animal that’s new to science, and bringing it in and going, ‘I can’t remember where I found this. Is it important?’”
Imagine if something as significant as Albright’s therizinosaur had been found by someone just walking by, rather than participating in a paleontological dig.
National monument protections keep people from carrying off valuable specimens.
That balance, between allowing people to collect fossils and preserving every little thing for science, is a difficult one to strike.
The protection that a national monument area offers is particularly important because the US is unique in how it treats fossils legally.
Alongside China, Argentina, Mongolia and Canada, it has the richest fossil resource in the world, but only in the US do fossils belong to the landowner. That’s obviously complicated on public land, with its common and uncommon rules for different designations, but it also creates problems on private land – at least for scientists who have been shouldered out by for-profit palaeontologists.
After the “fossil rush” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when prospectors combed the
American West, sending specimens back to museums, another era of fossil hunting kicked off in 1997, when the Field Museum in Chicago paid US$8.3 million for a Tyrannosaurus rex now known as Sue. All of a sudden, ranchers in Montana were a little less willing to let academic palaeontologists comb their land. A rancher can make $20,000 by leasing that land for the season, as well as receiving a portion of any profits from fossil sales.
“Now, scientists are pretty much pushed off private property. That’s a total change from 20 years ago,” says Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. In recent years, numerous stories have vilified commercial dinosaur hunters working on private land.
Headlines about massive auction sales suggest they are engaged in a get-rich-quick scheme that allows wealthy buyers to sequester valuable scientific resources behind closed doors.
There are a few examples that stand out as particularly troubling.
Last June, a French auction house sold what it billed as a “unique, recently discovered skeleton of an unknown theropod” for €2.3 million. If the skeleton is actually of an unknown species, it has clear scientific value – but no one really knows.
The anonymous buyer reportedly said he or she would put the specimen on public display, but, again, no one knows when that might happen, or what scientific value might have been lost along the way.
The “duelling dinosaurs”, also unearthed in Montana, is another example of a significant finding that has been withheld from the scientific community. The two dinosaurs are preserved in mid-fight and the fossil is reportedly one of the most stunning ever found.
However, as neither private collector nor museum has offered what the owner thinks they are worth, they are currently languishing in storage.
It’s bad enough that the specimens might not end up in the public trust. They also might have lost some of their scientific value. Palaeontologist Jack Horner recently told Smithsonian magazine that the duelling dinosaurs is “scientifically useless”, because it wasn’t collected by academics trained to preserve the surrounding data.
But the divide between those who want to preserve science and those who want to make money hunting bones isn’t black and white. Despite Horner’s comments, many palaeontologists, whether at a university or a museum, seem to agree that the advent of commercial hunters has not done serious damage to the academic pursuit of palaeontology. As Johnson says: “It turns out that you can’t map the good scientists onto those categories. Some of the hobbyists and some of the commercial guys do a superb job.”
In fact, Merle Graffam, Albright’s colleague who found the therizinosaur toe, was a volunteer hobbyist: a Big Water, Utah, resident and a dinosaur lover.
And not all commercial palaeontologists are antiscience: stories about commercial and academic fossil hunters working together are not uncommon. For the most part, everyone working in the fossil fields is doing it for the love of old bones.
In 2005, when Johnson was working at the Denver Museum of Natural History, a commercial fossil excavator donated a fossil from a new species, Garoyleosaurus parkpinorum, to the museum. It was found on private property, so it could have been legally sold and lost to science forever.
“They were commercial guys, digging and selling on the private market, who said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, this is an unknown type of dinosaur, and we’re going to give it to a museum’,” Johnson says. “They really did the right thing there. They could have sold that at auction, but they chose to give it to a museum.”
Something similar happened last year in Texas, when Andre Lujan found what he says is a new genus of ankylosaur – and which he estimates to be worth more than a million dollars – on private property. It could be sold, or would sit well in Texas Through Time, a private natural history museum he supports with his commercial work, but instead he hopes to excavate and prepare it for the Denver Museum.
“[Joe Sertich] was very adamant that these belong in the public trust, and we fully agree,” Lujan says. Although the two parties have yet to come to a formal agreement, they have established “fair market rate”.
“We’re not really selling the fossils; we’re not putting a value on the bones,” he says. “We just want to be paid fairly for our work.”
Commercial palaeontologists are starting to work more with museums, to the benefit of both. And museums have been criticised for gathering up all the fossils and themselves not being able to make them accessible to the public.
“The old model of purely fossils for profit can’t be sustained, because most people who want a triceratops skull have one. Now, they regularly fail to sell at auction even at prices lower than anything in the last decade,” Lujan says.
Johnson agrees that there is a middle ground between allowing wealthy buyers to buy whatever fossils they want and keeping fossils behind glass cases.
“I do want fossils preserved for science, for sure,” he says. “The question I would ask … is do you need every allosaur ever found? What really is the damage to science?”
Johnson was involved in the bidding process for Sue, and can appreciate what something like a T. rex does for a museum. If part of your mission is to educate and enliven people’s interest in science, big, showy pieces do that. Private collectors sometimes help, too.
Tristan, another T. rex, sold at auction around 2014 to a private buyer and was loaned to a museum in Berlin. It will later go to Copenhagen. And when the National Museum of Natural History reopens a 9450-squaremetre fossil exhibit space in June, one of the premier attractions will be a T. rex. That specimen was found on state land in 1998 and excavated by Horner’s team at the Museum of the Rockies, which has loaned it to the Smithsonian for the next 50 years.
Ultimately, the question of fossils in the US is one of access. Museums want to display bones, and they also take volunteers and (wealthy) donors on expeditions. And they don’t always use every piece for research or exhibition. The basement of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is filled with drawers of fossil fragments, imprints and cement cased specimens.
Private collectors buy up beautiful and sometimes rare pieces, but they also fund commercial fossil hunting that occasionally turns up scientifically important fossils that get turned over to researchers and museums.
Public access to a fossil field is a many-layered thing, but most Americans agree that, at the very least, fossils from public lands belong to the public.
When Trump announced that he was cutting GSENM’s area by nearly half, he claimed that ordinary people would play a preservation role. “Families will hike and hunt on land they have known for generations, and they will preserve it for generations to come,” he said.
Palaeontologists would argue, however, that the protections GSENM currently enjoys are the best way to help make fossils more public, allowing people to safely and scientifically engage with whatever remain to be found.
Jessie Atterholt, a palaeontologist who analysed a rare finding from the monument for publication late last year, says she has an “emotional attachment” to the formations found there, and that the public should be at the forefront of palaeontological pursuits.
“When you go out to these sites and you see the fossils and touch them and see the rocks and touch them, it gets you in a visceral way,” she says. “There’s this growing movement in science in general – and I know in the palaeontology community – to include the public and non-scientist in the scientific process.”
Atterholt is another example of a scientist fostered by the US’s scientific preservations. She grew up camping and hiking in national parks and at the age of nine started volunteering at a state park in the paleontology program. And she wants to preserve that experience for generations to come, not for mining interests or off-road vehicles.
“We’re not trying to protect the lands to exclude people and be elitist, we’re trying to protect the lands to include people,” Atterholt says. “If people can experience them in their state … people have a greater appreciation for the natural world and a stronger motivation to protect it.”
Related reading: How to hunt fossils responsibly
Samantha Page is a science journalist based in Spain.
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