Monument reductions threaten future dinosaur discoveries

Digs are imperiled by Trump’s move to slash protections for public land.

 

The paleontologist Rob Gay wasn’t expecting to find anything significant that day. He and a few of his students were scouting in the southeast Utah badlands in summer 2016 when they came across a hillside littered with hundreds of bones. Scattered haphazardly and protruding from the earth, they were the remains of of prehistoric reptiles that lived 220 million years ago, at the same time as the earliest dinosaurs.

Gay has since made at least one discovery at the site that appears to be new to science. But now this dig, and others, is imperiled by President Donald Trump’s move to slash protections for public land.

The site is located on the territory of the Bears Ears national monument, which Barack Obama created not long after Gay’s discovery in 2016, meaning the dig would be safe from new uranium-mining claims in the area. A year later, however, Trump decided to shrink the monument by 85 percent in a bid to encourage more industrial use. “There’s literally decades of work at this one site,” Gay said. “If the site was vandalized, disturbed, leased,” he said, it would be lost to the public.

Trump has signaled he wants to shrink or modify as many as 10 national monuments — lands designated for conservation and of profound importance but with not quite the same level of prestige, funding or protection as the national parks. They include alpine forests and Pacific coral reefs.

Joe Sertich, from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, cutting in to the rock to liberate a jacketed fossil in in the Kaiparowits Plateau within Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Tom Fowlks/Guardian

Some observers have applauded the move, saying monuments put unnecessary restrictions on traditional natural resource economies like mining and ranching. Yet many environmentalists and Native American tribal members have decried the reductions, fearing for the fate of archaeological objects, pristine landscapes, and, strikingly, dinosaur research.

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and others recently filed suit against the administration for shrinking Bears Ears and another Utah national monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante. The society president, David Polly, estimates hundreds of scientists belonging to his organization have conducted research there, and in 2016 a large horned dinosaur that lived 77m years ago, the Machairoceratops cronusi, was found there. More than 40 scientists who belong to the SVP are working on sites that fall outside the new boundaries of the two Utah monuments. “The rock layers of the monument are like pages in an ancient book,” Polly said about Grand Staircase-Escalante. “If half of them are ripped out, the plot is lost.”

“It’ll be a different game,” said the paleontologist Joseph Sertich, who has dug in the area, if the land is “developed into coal mines.”

John Hankla, a research associate from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, breaks ground on a site where they will pull a 77 million year old complete fossilized turtle from the ground in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Tom Fowlks/Guardian

The Marshall University paleontologist Robin O’Keefe, a declarant in the lawsuit, has been doing research in Grand Staircase-Escalante for a decade but says there will be no reason for him to return if his sites end up outside the monument — which is exactly what will happen if the boundary changes become permanent. “It would destroy my research program in Utah,” O’Keefe said.

In Grand Staircase-Escalante, he studies Tyrannosaurus rex-size marine reptiles from 92m years ago called pliosaurs, with heads more than 6ft in length. These reptiles inhabited a coastline and ocean that once bisected North America.

The threat that keeps O’Keefe up at night is the drilling and mining of bentonite, a mineral used in cat litter, detergents and industrial lubricant. Like coal, it often shares space with fossils in Utah’s sedimentary rock formations. “I have nightmares about people strip-mining bentonite and all my fossils going away,” he said. “If they sell the mineral rights, then they can put up fences and I can’t get in at all. Access becomes an issue.”

Looting is another concern. The fossil black market kicked into high gear in the late 1990s, after a South Dakota Tyrannosaurus rex sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $8.4 million. O’Keefe worries that federal staff will no longer patrol outside Trump’s monument boundaries, leaving fossil sites vulnerable to looters. “They’re just going to descend on the place,” he said.

Few people understand the value of these ancient artifacts as well as Rob Gay. After stumbling on the reptile graveyard, Gay scrapped his other plans for the week and, with a permit, he and his group immediately began collecting the fossils.

His efforts were jumpstarted when Obama created the Bears Ears monument. Suddenly his new fossil site was eligible for funding through a conservation program within the Bureau of Land Management, which co-manages the landscape. The following year he received $25,000 — the kind of money many paleontologists at smaller institutions like the Museums of Western Colorado, where Gay is a contractor, rely on. The funds allowed Gay to spend a week excavating the new site with a field assistant, and months looking for more fossils elsewhere.

At first Gay and his team thought they had discovered the bones of a poposaurus, a carnivore related to today’s crocodiles, but they later realized they had actually found three different ancient creatures. One of them, Gay believes, is new to science, and from preliminary research, it appears to be a reptile as large as a medium-sized dog. “Without knowing about this site, we wouldn’t know that this species ever existed at all,” he said.

Under the Trump administration, science more broadly appears to be a lesser priority for those protecting America’s public lands. A leaked interior department strategic plan for 2018 to 2022 failed to mention climate change, a stark contrast to the previous plan. And earlier this month, a report by the advocacy group the Union of Concerned Scientists found that science advisory committees met less often in 2017 at the interior department and other agencies than at any other time in the last two decades.

Other dig sites are at risk. In December, Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke also recommended shrinking the Gold Butte national monument, which Obama created in south-east Nevada. “Really nobody’s been doing work out there because it’s so isolated,” said the University of Nevada paleontologist Joshua Bonde.

But recent discoveries include petrified wood and dinosaur tracks, and Bonde is dismayed by the possible ramifications of stripping protections from fossils and Native American heritage sites scattered throughout the 300,000-acre area. More than once, he’s found fossils marked with ATV tracks and bullet holes. “If the wrong folks knew those (dinosaur) tracks are out at Gold Butte,” Bonde said, “they would be gone.”

This story is published in collaboration with the Guardian as part of their two-year series, This Land is Your Land, with support from the Society of Environmental Journalists. 

Tay Wiles is an associate editor for High Country News. Email her [email protected]

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