by Heather Abel
Tucson, Ariz. - The television's flickering
light reveals salmon-colored femurs on card tables, mastodon skulls
on a flowered bedcover, dinosaur eggs atop the TV. Japheth Boyce is
on the phone, dealing.
... $2,000 ... I just can't go any lower ... Well, what can you
trade me? ... Room 169, Ramada Inn, tomorrow 7 a.m."
Bizarre, but not illegal. Each of the 114 rooms
on the ground floor of this Tucson Ramada Inn is the setting for a
similar scene during the Arizona Mineral and Fossil Show. The
Ramada and 22 other motels and meeting halls house the world's
largest and oldest gem and mineral extravaganza. For a week in late
winter, this desert city glitters with rubies, opals, diamonds and
fluorescent minerals. But to many of the 40,000 people who have
come here, what really shines are the dusty fossils at the
During the show, this dated motel serves
as a reservoir. Fossils from around the arid West and the world
flow into its rooms, perch on beds and TVs and even toilets, then
slowly seep out. Buyers from the 14 outlets of the Discovery
Channel Stores and the 120 stores of The Nature Company are looking
for quantity: lots of teeth and bones. Alongside them are interior
decorators from New York and Los Angeles searching for complete
dinosaur skeletons and other one-of-a-kind treasures for the
Boyce and many of his fellow
collector-dealers in these rooms are self-taught fossil-hunters who
love doing it. They call themselves a "brotherhood," and it's not
too strong a word; up to several hundred thousand dollars in
fossils are in each motel room without alarms or guards. If the
brothers are armed, it isn't evident.
years ago, recalls Boyce, the fossil world was small, prices were
low, and almost everyone was in it for the love of the chase.
No more. Now dinosaurs and other relics are in
hot demand. Some say it's because of Michael Crichton's book
Jurassic Park and the subsequent movie. Others blame or praise
Barney, the TV show for children. Or they point to Robert Bakker,
the paleontologist whose work almost literally ripped ponderous,
cold-blooded, extinct beasts out of the mud and revealed them to be
fast-moving, hot-blooded creatures. His research is a metaphor for
what has happened to fossil hunting and selling.
Martin Zinn, who has directed the Arizona Mineral and Fossil Show
for six years, witnessed the explosion close up. He says
Tyrannosaurus "Sue" did it. Her complete skeleton, dug out of Sioux
land by the private Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in
Hill City, S.D., was seized by the FBI in 1992, provoking stories
in all the media and a "Free Sue" campaign (HCN,
"We couldn't have
bought this advertising for one gillion dollars," says
Sue is still in a federal warehouse, but
the issues she raised hang over the motel. Between selling and
swapping, dealers talk about who owns the teeth and skeletons and
eggs that water and wind and earthslides are continually uncovering
on the West's 500,000 square miles of public
The West is fossil
To professional paleontologists and
land-management agencies, the question of ownership is perfectly
clear: Selling fossils threatens the scientific record. The Bureau
of Land Management uses the Federal Land Policy and Management Act
to keep the earth's history in the public domain; only
college-educated paleontologists can collect fossils on BLM land
and they must turn their findings over to public museums.
But to the commercial pickers and diggers, this
rule smacks of snobbery and elitism. They say fossils are a
renewable resource and are being sacrificed to erosion. Along with
the 10,000 or so amateur rock hounds, commercial collectors are
backing a bill in Congress that would give them collecting rights
now enjoyed by prospectors for oil, gas and coal.
The conflict wouldn't be so serious if the
West's fossils weren't so accessible. Its barren expanses of rock
are a gigantic graveyard which have yielded some of the most
important paleontological discoveries.
predator, Coelophysis, came from New Mexico's Ghost Ranch. Nearby,
what is now the Los Alamos National Laboratory yielded the
Seismosaurus, one of the longest Gargantuans ever. Two of the
tallest dinosaurs, Ultrasaurus and Supersaurus, were found in Dry
Mesa Quarry in western Colorado.
Petrified Forest National Park and Colorado's Dinosaur National
Monument are massive rock tombs. Como Bluff, Wyo., has been called
the Jurassic mother lode. Billions of tracks run across Colorado -
the Dinosaur Freeway. Montana was home to the bloodthirsty and
sickle-clawed Deinonychus, the horned Torosaurus, and the world's
most extensive litter of baby dinosaurs and egg
Although children and perhaps their
parents think of dinosaurs as indigenous to museums of natural
history in big cities, the West is beginning to get some credit for
its fecundity. Western paleontologists Bakker and James Kirkland
have named dinosaurs "Utah," "Denver" and "Wyoming," after their
states should be honored for their fossil richness," Kirkland told
the Salt Lake Tribune. "We've been treated like Third World
countries for a long time by those guys back East who come and dig
our dinosaurs, drag them back to their museums and give them long
In an exception to that practice,
dinosaur remains have been dragged to Tucson for this annual
bazaar. The more successful fossil companies - the Black Hills
Institute, Boyce's RJB Rock Shop, and Triebold Paleontology -
display full dinosaur casts in the Ramada's
Flanked by their
mighty finds, the dealers brag about the science they have taught
themselves and their ability to survive in the outback. "We are
guys that like to get dirty and stay dirty," says Black Hills
Institute's Neal Larson.
The men - the
collectors here are almost all men; the few wives and girlfriends
in attendance tan by the pool - scoff at the idea that they
threaten what they love. Eroding fossils are a "burning virgin
forest," says Mike Triebold, president of the American Association
of Paleontological Suppliers, and "we are all firefighters."
"How many fossils does a
strip mine in Wyoming destroy?" asks Larson. "All of us in one year
(take fewer fossils than) one small contractor in one year."
While the big dealers dominate the ballroom,
the smaller ones sell out of the rooms they sleep in. Stuart
Grieve, a nervous man who sells slabs of fossil fish, grew up in a
small Western town and built a fossil collection from his
after-school forays and solitary weekend walks. Since jobs in
ranching and mining were fading fast, he decided to turn his hobby
into a living.
"I like rocks
and I like to be out by myself in the snow, cold and rain," says
The people here aren't shy about
criticizing professors who use taxpayers' money to fund their
studies, but are too busy writing grant proposals to spend time on
the ground. And they say professors are jealous of commercial
dealers' freedom to roam the land.
hurts, Boyce tells me. Academics discriminate against his friends
"for being hillbillies ... or yahoos," or "untrustworthy,
gun-toting, drug-dealing criminal types."
darting to the static schools of fossil fish, Grieve pinpoints the
difference between him and the academics: "They've loved it as much
as we did when we were kids, but they were better students."
If this is a war to control fossils on
the public land, then the poor students are winning, for they have
recruited a relatively large army of amateurs.
Commercial collectors, who sell all over the world, appeal to many
of the independent, anti-government rock hounds. They live in the
same small towns, join the same rock clubs and even work together.
Rock hounds don't make a living from fossils - many are still
miners or ranchers - but they get involved with dealers for some
side cash. Smaller dealers buy many of the fossils I see displayed
from rock hounds; larger dealers hire local amateurs to work
Commercial dealers attribute their tight
relationship with these amateurs to the gem and mineral shows. "I
educate 2,000 to 3,000 people per show, five shows a year," says
Dan Ryder, a Texan who dropped out of a paleontology Ph.D. program
when his advisor told him to stop selling fossils to pay tuition.
"This is a mobile museum."
I see his point when
Bob Farrar rushes up in the crowded lobby and drops a T. rex tooth
in my hand. Farrar is a lanky, bearded Black Hills Institute CEO
whose cowboy hat makes him look even taller. "This is what we
mean," he says, "no glass. You can pet it, touch it."
I hold the cool, ridged 65 million-year-old
tooth. It's not often I handle something this old - or worth
To many professional paleontologists,
this isn't education or even commerce: It's destruction of
knowledge for private gain. Collectively, paleontologists have
spent over a century hunting, preparing and investigating these
prehistoric creatures. They've fought wars with their colleagues
over matters that seemed at the time to be impossibly arcane.
They've sat through scholarly meetings and pursued money from
foundations, wealthy individuals and government. They have spent
their lives digging for things that, until recently, most people
thought had no value.
Together they've written
the ultimate - if incomplete - history of the 165 million-year
reign of the dinosaurs. Through it all, they said, one of their
goals was to get us interested - to get us to share their passion
for knowledge and preservation.
succeeded beyond their expectations. To some paleontologists, their
wish has become their nightmare.
In a basement
study lined with books, in the heart of Colorado's richest dinosaur
fields, paleontologist Brooks Britt writes his reports, leaving
occasionally to go upstairs to a lab where volunteers painstakingly
remove dirt from bones. His fossil collection inhabits the
labyrinthine underbelly of the Museum of Western Colorado in Grand
"Ma and Pa (fossil
collectors) really do a lot of damage because they don't have
skills," he says. "They pick splinters off the surface. If the
surface bones are gone, we don't know the dinosaur is
(underground)." Britt also complains that because established
quarries get looted, he must waste time covering sites with four
feet of dirt every time they are left alone, and bulldozing them
out again when he returns.
argue that the commercial collectors give nothing back to the
science that has fostered their passion for fossils and their
market. In 1991, Denver Museum of Natural History paleontologist
Richard Stucky surveyed 33 institutions. Only 0.3 percent of the
vertebrate fossils were purchased from commercial dealers, 5.7
percent were donated by amateurs, and 94 percent were collected by
The pet peeve of
Society of Vertebrate Paleontology president David Krause is trophy
hunting. Commercial dealers will find a set of dinosaur tracks and
sell them as individual footprints, he says. "We will never know
where the dinosaur walked, or whether there was a fight between two
Sale catalogs display perfectly
mounted skulls. "Where are the skeletons associated with the
skulls?" asks Krause.
But a few paleontologists
support commercial collectors and rock hounds. Their most famous
advocate is Bob Bakker, who curates the Tate Museum in Casper,
Wyo., and is often asked by commercial dealers to assist with
identification. Bakker was a consultant on the screenplay of
Jurassic Park and wrote a best-selling nonfiction book, The
Dinosaur Heresies. He recently signed contracts worth $1 million
for domestic, foreign and audio rights for Raptor Red, his
prehistoric version of Thelma and Louise, reports the Salt Lake
Unlike Bakker, most academics alienate
rock hounds by ignoring the amateurs. The typical dig uses
volunteer undergraduates for physical labor, rather than locals,
and gives nothing back to the community. This annoys British
paleontologist and fossil dealer Terry Manning, who comes annually
to Tucson and thinks American paleontologists should use the energy
and skills of rock hounds and even commercial
James Kirkland is trying to broaden
paleontolgy's supporters. He curates the Dinamation Society's
Devils Canyon Science and Learning Center in the small town of
Fruita, Colo., where robotic dinosaurs roar, stomp and rip each
other to shreds in front of kids' wide eyes. Since discovering the
bloodthirsty Utahraptor - a large velociraptor like those that
terrorized Jurassic Park - he has worked to popularize dinosaurs.
As part of that effort, he set up shop in this small town in
dinosaur country. His plans include a popular magazine, like
Audubon, that would relate tales of the most recent discoveries and
But even Kirkland draws the line at
opening public land to commercial dealers. "I spend 60 percent of
my time in front of a computer screen preparing articles,
requesting permits, writing grant proposals. I also have to teach
and curate a museum," says Kirkland. Scientists must store every
piece of dinosaur they find forever, and provide public access to
Commercial collectors, he
says, "have an incredible advantage over curators."
Battle of the
One thing that commercial dealers and
academics agree on is that current regulations are a mess.
Land-management agencies allow scientists to collect on public
land, but the permitting system is so complex that it defeats many
academics. Commercial dealers say they're locked out and must rent
private land, mainly from ranchers interested in royalties and,
perhaps, a famous discovery.
Both groups have
pushed legislation to further their cause. Members of the Society
of Vertebrate Paleontology supported a bill in 1992 which would
have allowed only paleontologists to collect vertebrate fossils on
Attacks on the bill sent a shock
wave through the academic community. The Senate was bombarded
withletters from a new national organization, the American Lands
Access Association. The bill was severe, elitist and anti-American,
said the letters. It died in committee.
Access Association "speaks for a lot of poor people with a
four-wheel drive and a tank of gas," according to Bob Cranston, its
The debate over the bill is cast in
traditional Western terms: From the commercial and amateur
collectors' side, the scientists' bill was another attempt to close
off Western land. Cranston and his allies visited gem and mineral
rock shops and shows. But "rock hounds alone are not enough," says
Cranston, "so we turned to the Blue Ribbon Coalition and solicited
every snowmobile rider, jeep driver, everyone who uses public
So far, the group's support includes
the American Land Rights Association, the Eastern Oregon Mining
Association, People for the West! and the Grassroots Multiple Use
Contributions from these groups and
commercial dealers helped send a lobbyist to Washington, D.C., to
co-author the Fossil Preservation Act of 1996. In early February,
coinciding nicely with the Tucson show, the bill was introduced. It
would allow rock hounds and commercial collectors to apply for
permits to dig on public lands. But no one would need a permit to
take fossils from the surface using hand tools.
The bill's proponents at the Ramada tell me the final draft makes
huge concessions to the scientific community. But Krause, the head
of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology,
He points to the heart of the problem
- the honor system. Commercial and amateur collectors would be
compelled to hand over all scientifically unique fossils to a
federal land-management agency. The agency would then bring the
fossil to a seven-member "National Fossil Council," which would
have only one member chosen by the Society of Vertebrate
Paleontology. The council would determine which fossils are
scientifically "unique" and should be protected. Non-compliance
would result in fines of up to $100,000, but no prison
Krause calls the bill "paleontologically
naive" because it assumes that only rare and large fossils are
important. He says that paleontologists studying the functional
morphology of a common fossil or the paleoecology of an area would
need hundreds of non-unique fossils.
opposition to the bill, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
cites a 1995 survey of Americans who were asked what they would do
if they owned a ranch and found fossils on the ranch or on adjacent
grasslands. Would they give them to a museum? Keep them? Sell them?
The overwhelming response was against allowing fossil collecting
for profit. (In Tucson, Triebold holds up the survey and laughs. An
"East Coast thing," he calls it.)
admits that he and his fellow scientists are at a disadvantage in
this fight. "Professional scientists are bad at public relations
while the commercial collectors are masterful."
Meanwhile, out on the public lands, where the war over fossil
collecting will be won or lost, land-management agencies are the
sheriffs, and they are outgunned and losing. "We find holes in the
ground and shattered bone around," says BLM paleontologist Tom
Rasmussen. "It's a huge problem."
fossilized bone is removed, it is very difficult to prove where it
came from. BLM paleontologist Harley Armstrong often attends the
Tucson show to visit familiar rocks. From the matrix and formation,
"I know which (fossils) come from the land I manage out in
Colorado," says Armstrong. But there is little he can do except
watch them get sold.
The BLM office in Moab,
Utah, sits in the heart of red rock country. Some of the world's
finest fossil sites are here, and almost all are on public land.
Nevertheless, Moab District Manager Kate Kitchell says catching
fossil thieves is low on her list of priorities, below catching
looters of Indian artifacts and rescuing mountain bikers. Only one
law enforcement agent and one paleontologist roam her district's
6.5 million acres. Moab BLM archaelogoist Bruce Louthan won't ever
go in the many rock shops along Moab's main drag. "I find it
distasteful," he says. "I would rather not have to get into an
argument about how immoral (fossil collecting on public land) is."
The scope of fossil-pirating in the West is
hinted at by Operation Rock Fish in Wyoming. There, officials use
aerial surveillance of the Fossil Butte National Monument and other
public lands to record pilfering.
Thus far, the
18-month-old operation has made 29 felony arrests that involve
weapons and explosives violations, burglaries, grand larceny and
controlled substance violations, in connection with fossil thefts,
reports the Casper Star-Tribune. But no one has yet been
"Nine out of 10
suspects (for stealing fish fossils in Wyoming) have criminal
records that lead to drug trafficking and dealing," says Society of
Vertebrate Paleontology president Krause.
South Dakota, the "Sue" incident led the Justice Department to a
four-year investigation of the Black Hills Institute. Last year,
Neal and Pete Larson, Bob Farrar and two other Institute partners
were indicted on 39 counts, containing 153 separate charges, mostly
for fossil theft. Their sentencing occurred just days before the
Neal Larson and Farrar made it to
Tucson, grinning like kids, wearing "Free Sue" T-shirts, and eager
to show off "Stan," their second T. rex skull - four feet, eight
and a half inches long. Neal Larson had been convicted of theft of
government property but was given two years' probation, and fined.
But Pete Larson missed his first show in years: He had just been
sentenced to two years in prison. He was convicted on two felony
charges for smuggling money into the country after one of his trips
abroad and two misdemeanor charges for taking fossils worth less
than $100. The charges against Farrar were dropped. The jury
acquitted the Black Hills defendents on 72 other charges and failed
to reach verdicts on 68 more.
agents feel unequipped to deal with the current problem, the Fossil
Preservation Act terrifies them. "We would never have the manpower
to enforce something like that," says Rasmussen.
BLM employees are also angry that the bill gives ultimate authority
to the U.S. Geological Survey, an agency that does not manage any
land and that just fired all of its paleontologists. "The BLM is
much more capable of doing day-to-day work," says Rasmussen. "We
have resource areas in small towns."
Fossils on the auction block
It is evening toward the end of an exhausting week. The dealers are
by the pool, beers in hand, for the annual Paleontological
Suppliers' auction. The Black Hills Institute's Neal Larson plays
auctioneer in an oversized cowboy hat. Dealers bid on each others'
fossils, jacking the price up four or five times.
Suddenly I realize I'm at a fossil-hound's
version of a Ducks Unlimited auction; they are selling relatively
worthless objects for high prices for a good cause. A single
trilobite worth less than a buck is auctioned three times at $100
each time. Boyce offers another $100 if Larson will throw it in the
Boyce invented this game in 1985. Proceeds
go to the American Association of Paleontological Suppliers' three
scholarships for academic paleontology students. "I was sick of
being accused of being greedy bloodsuckers," says
Although Boyce has learned to cash in on
the West, his hucksterism is softened by love of what he sells. He
tells me that his house in South Dakota is built of limestone
embedded with fish and plant
"The Badlands are
just that - bad," he says. "There is a lot of erosion and the
ground is every color of the rainbow, from black to pink to pastel
purple. When I watch Western movies I look behind the set and
think, I know that formation and the fossils there. I think, this
is a desperate land and beautiful."
thinks of himself and the brotherhood around the pool as the future
- a force that will harvest the West's resources when public lands
are open to lawful commercial and amateur
Special agent for the National Park
Service Pat Buccello has another vision. She compares the fossils
to the West's vulnerable archaeological treasures. "We are exactly
where we were with the loss of archaeological resources 100 years
ago. We are just now realizing what we are losing."
Abel is a High Country News reporter.
information about the Fossil Preservation Act, contact the
SAFE, Save America's Fossils for
Everyone, Lawrence J. Flynn, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and
Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02139
American Lands Access
Association, Bob Cranston, P.O. Box 4255, Grand Junction, CO 81501
Bill sponsors Rep. Tim Johnson,
D-S.D., 202/225-2801 and Rep. Joe Skeen, R-N.M.,