Who owns these bones?

  • Map of some important fossil sites in the West

    Diane Sylvain
  • One of the stars of the Arizona Mineral and Fossil Show at Ramada Inn

    Heather Abel
  • Diplodocus dig in Canon City, Colo., circa 1915-16

    Denver Museum of Natural History
  • Jurassic Corp. removes Camarasaurus femur from quarry in NW Colorado

    Japheth Boyce
  • Larson siblings' first museum (1960) on Rosebud Reservation

    Black Hills Institute

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.

"Yes ... $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 Ramada.

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 wealthy.

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.

Only 20 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, 9/21/92).

"We couldn't have bought this advertising for one gillion dollars," says Zinn.

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 land.

The West is fossil country

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.

The small 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.

Arizona's 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 shells.

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 burial grounds.

"Western 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 Latin names."

The dealers

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 ballroom-turned-fossil-hall.

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 Grieve.

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.

The snobbery hurts, Boyce tells me. Academics discriminate against his friends "for being hillbillies ... or yahoos," or "untrustworthy, gun-toting, drug-dealing criminal types."

Eyes 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."

The rock hounds

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 digs.

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 $3,500.

The academics

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.

They've 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 Junction.

"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.

Other paleontologists 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 academic paleontologists.

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 animals."

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 Tribune.

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 dealers.

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 digs.

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 their collection.

Commercial collectors, he says, "have an incredible advantage over curators."

Battle of the bills

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 public land.

Attacks on the bill sent a shock wave through the academic community. The Senate was bombarded with letters 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.

The Access Association "speaks for a lot of poor people with a four-wheel drive and a tank of gas," according to Bob Cranston, its secretary.

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 lands."

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 Coalition.

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, disagrees.

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 terms.

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.

To generate 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.)

Kirkland 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."

A vast, unpatrolled desert

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."

Once a 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 convicted.

"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.

In 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 Tucson show.

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.

If land-management 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 pool.

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 Boyce.

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 fossils.

"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."

Boyce 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 collecting.

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."

Heather Abel is a High Country News reporter.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Dinosaur bones have really increased in price

- Fossils are being destroyed by people who are loving them to death

- I was a sheep rancher in western Wyoming

- People respond to owning a piece of the earth's crust

For more information about the Fossil Preservation Act, contact the following:

SAFE, Save America's Fossils for Everyone, Lawrence J. Flynn, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02139 (617/496-3945);

American Lands Access Association, Bob Cranston, P.O. Box 4255, Grand Junction, CO 81501 (970/245-7139);

Bill sponsors Rep. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., 202/225-2801 and Rep. Joe Skeen, R-N.M., 202/225-2365.

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