Brazen Fossil Hunters Are Cleaning Out U.S. Dinosaur Heritage

Mike Toner
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
August 24, 2001

The dinosaurs are disappearing. Again. On public lands across the West, from the open range to the national parks, fossil hunters are poaching priceless, and sometimes pricey, fragments of the Americas' prehistoric heritage.

Where cattle rustling was once the crime du jour, fossil hunters with off-road vehicles and satellite navigation aids now filch the fossilized remains of dinosaurs and other prehistoric life. Some of the skulls and bones disappear into private collections. Some are sold over the Internet or at upscale auction houses. Some eventually make it to museums. And some are never seen again.

"Fossil hunters are picking our federal lands clean," says Vincent Santucci, a ranger at Wyoming's Fossil Butte National Monument, the National Park Service's top cop in matters of fossil theft. "The problem is rampant. And unlike forests and grizzly bears, fossils are not a renewable resource. They're not making T. rexes anymore."

Fossil collecting on private land, with the permission of the landowner, is legal. Scrupulous fossil collectors are careful always to get permission. But the widespread evidence of fossil theft from federal lands, where most collecting is illegal, makes it clear such scruples are not universal.

In Rapid City, South Dakota, this month, federal prosecutors are preparing to try four University of Wisconsin students charged with stealing 1,700 fossils from Badlands National Park. The case is unusual only because the students got caught. Park rangers have yet to find the thieves who last year dug up a 30-million-year-old graveyard of rhinoceros-like mammals called titanotheres and made off with 18 skulls worth U.S. $5,000 apiece.

Problem Not Confined to America

The theft of valuable fossils is not limited to the open range, and international smuggling rings make sure the problem is not confined to America.

A few years ago, two 25 million-year-old rhinoceros fossils were stolen from a University of Michigan museum. The thieves dismantled the exhibit, took a skull and a leg bone and then reassembled the case. The fossils were never recovered.

Authorities did recover a portion of a Tyrannosaurus jaw stolen from a University of California, Berkeley, museum a few years ago, but only after it had been tracked through an underground fossil market that stretched to Belgium and Germany. Major fossil thefts—including those of rare, scientifically important specimens—have occurred in Russia and Argentina.

"Paleontology has caught up with archaeology and art as a commercial enterprise," says Dan Chure, a paleontologist at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. "Like art and archaeology, some specimens are selling for seven figures. And just like art and archaeology, we're seeing a booming underground market for stolen specimens. Every time they release a sequel to Jurassic Park, the market takes off again."

Western ranchers who own fossil-rich geologic formations have been quick to cash in on the fossil gold rush, charging fossil hunters thousands of dollars for the right to prospect on their land and a percentage of the take if they find anything of value.

With an owner's permission, it is legal to collect anything on private land and sell it. Once a fossil has been removed, however, it is all but impossible to tell where it came from. Fossil dealers often don't know—and don't want to. The federal prosecution of the Black Hills Institute was successful, in part, because the Larsons kept meticulous records.

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