Fossil Poachers Steal Potentially Valuable Relics From Public Lands
Poachers armed with shovels and even bulldozers have raided the Farson fish bed, filching the fossilized fish that swam here millions of years ago.
“This could have been an Air Force bombing range from World War II,” geologist Randy Porter said as he surveyed the roughly one-square-mile area in the remote sagebrush plains of southwestern Wyoming.
Before him were “poach” holes ranging from a few inches to several feet deep. Some were 70 feet wide.
They were caused by poachers who dug up the fossils and threw the overburden and soil behind. The layer of brittle flat rock, similar to that used in sidewalk flagstones, provided poor protection from the poachers.
“This is by far the largest and most dramatic area of excavation, but it’s by no means the only one,” said Porter, who works with the Bureau of Land Management.
Money motivates the poachers. Fossil fish are easy to dig up, sell for prices starting at $10 each, and are harder to trace than dinosaur skeletons and other remainders of the Jurassic jungle that once was Wyoming.
“These thousands of fish are probably not as dramatic as a $7-million dinosaur being sold in Japan, but still there’s some big bucks involved,” Porter said.
Poachers don’t discriminate when it comes to size and shape. They steal fish fossils from western Wyoming, dinosaur remains from the state’s eastern half, 600-million-year-old trilobites from Utah and early mammals from northwestern Nebraska and the Dakota Badlands.
These states are fossil-rich because of their geology. Inland seas came and went several times over the millennia. Rain forests, ice ages and arid environments alternated.
Some of the world’s most complete dinosaur skeletons have come from the region. The 50-million-year-old Farson fish bed in the Green River formation is a smaller but equally important finding.
The illegal taking of fossils from public lands is not new. But officials worry that it is accelerating and depriving scientists of needed objects.
“When it’s lost to science, it’s lost to the public as well,” says paleontologist Brent Breithaupt, curator of the University of Wyoming Geological Museum. “If fossils are not allowed to be studied, we lose that chapter in our understanding of ancient animals.”
Breithaupt blames the market value of fossils. Vertebrate fossils are viewed as investments that increase in value.
Archeologist Ranel Capron of the bureau’s Cheyenne office calls fossils the “endangered species of today.”
“There’s only so many of certain fossils. They aren’t making any more. We can make more of the endangered species if we’re lucky,” she said.
Inadequate staffing makes it tough to protect fossils.
Four rangers and five special agents cover 18 million acres of prime fossil territory managed by the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming. They deal with violations ranging from fossil poaching to illegal oil drilling to wild horse roundups.
“Frankly, my staff can’t handle much more,” says Michael Martin, the bureau’s special agent in charge in Wyoming.
His counterpart in Utah, Martin Phillips, said seven rangers and four agents cover 22.2 million acres in that state.
The national average is one ranger for every 1.3 million acres.
In addition, Martin says, the penalty for fossil poaching is light. Unlike the theft of cultural artifacts such as Indian arrowheads, no specific law prohibits fossil raiding. Instead, two federal statutes provide vague guidelines for the protection of resources found on public lands.
Pending legislation referred to as the Baucus bill could change that.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) plans to reintroduce a bill similar to one that died last year because of opposition by hobby and professional collectors.
Baucus’ office says the measure, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine for anything other than hobby collecting, will be changed to satisfy complaints.