Western land, law agencies take on fossil poachers

INTERIOR, S.D.-Federal law-enforcement officers in the western United States have never had it easy. The Bureau of Land Management, for example, has less than one officer for every million acres of land, yet must keep an eye out for everything from the dumping of hazardous materials to the theft of oil, gas, timber and minerals.

Now add to that list the poaching of vertebrate fossils.

Since the mid-1990s, two trends-a growing public fascination with dinosaurs and a handful of high-priced auctions of skeletons-have encouraged fossil hunters to comb the arid West for buried treasure. Some gather for themselves, while others sell their haul to collectors.

Legally, they can do so only on private land and with the landowner's permission. Federal lands-which, due to their ruggedness, happen to include some of the continent's best fossil-hunting territory-remain strictly off-limits to all but pre-approved digs by museums, universities or other credentialed institutions.

This dichotomy has led to tensions between scholars and commercial fossil-hunters-and federal law enforcement officers have been on the front lines of the battle.

The issue has reached the point where the BLM, the FBI, the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and state officials have created a task force to share intelligence about fossil-poaching in Colorado, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Wyoming.

"We view fossil theft as a very significant issue," said Scott Lopez, the chief ranger at South Dakota's Badlands National Park. Lopez said his park sees 20-30 fossil-related cases a year and probably misses an equal number due to understaffing. Most violators are ticketed, with about one-fifth being charged with crimes serious enough to land them in court.

"We've had cases where we've arrested groups of up to four people who were university students searching around for fossils," Lopez said. "Some are avid collectors who sell to rock shops, and some are total amateurs. It's a wide variety."

John Silence, the Bureau of Land Management's special agent in charge for Colorado and 31 states east of the Mississippi River, said his region sees two or three "significant" fossil cases a year.

Silence said BLM works closely with local law enforcement officers to follow up on fossil-poaching tips. The bureau sometimes uses hidden cameras to catch violators in the act.

Once caught, Silence said, suspects are typically charged with theft or damage of government property or conspiracy. But they rarely end up in jail. (Unlike laws that cover the theft of human or archaeological remains from federal lands, no specific federal law bars the taking of fossils.) Often, defendants plead down to a fine and restoration of the site of the dig.

A major engine of controversy has been "Sue," a major set of Tyannosaurus Rex fossils discovered in 1990 that became the subject of a complex and drawn-out legal battle.

Sue was discovered by the Black Hills Institute, a private organization in Hill City, S.D., that eventually lost Sue in a dispute that involved federal officials, an Indian tribe and the man whose land it was found on.

After a high-profile raid on the institute's offices, federal prosecutors charged founder Peter Larson with several fossil-related charges. He was acquitted on all of the key counts, but he spent almost two years in jail on loosely related customs violations-an unexpectedly long sentence that was considered unnecessarily punitive by his supporters.

Sue, for her part, was purchased at a 1997 auction by Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. Most observers agree that Sue's $7.6 million price tag inspired many of the new fossil hunters.

"Things changed significantly after Sue," said Bill Perry, a Forest Service biologist and conservation specialist in Wall, S.D.

Many commercial fossil collectors consider the law enforcement crackdown to be overkill, suggesting that it is being driven by a minority of credentialed scholars who have long been protective of their own ability to dig on federal land.

"There is not some huge black market," said Marion Zenker, the Black Hills Institute's marketing coordinator. "The agencies insist that there is, because it helps them get more funding. Whenever a bureaucracy finds an issue like that, they're going to grab onto it with both hands and feet."

Charlie Magovern, who runs a well-established fossil-preparation business, The Stone Company, in Boulder, Colo., shared Zenker's concerns about certain government practices, which he compared to "hitting a fly with a sledgehammer."

Magovern said he has seen government appraisals that significantly overestimated a fossil's actual market price. "If a case is about a $100 pile of junk and the appraisal says it's worth $1,000, suddenly it's grand larceny," he said.

BLM's Silence acknowledged that its fossil appraisals-which are often handled by a combination of in-house and outside experts-are not an exact science. "We try to guard against [bias]," he said. "We want our appraisers to come at it from the mind, not the heart."

But even if much of today's fossil poaching is being done by unorganized novices-even, in some cases, by schoolteachers in search of visual aids for their classes-it still exacts a significant cost, officials say.

"If you've got a million visitors a year, and if people are coming around and picking up a tooth or a cat skull, it doesn't take long before the park's resources have been stripped," said Lopez of Badlands National Park.