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Be Careful Where You Dig For Dinos

Updated on March 30, 2010

You're driving down a gravel road in central Montana, and you stop for a stretch. Looking around, you see, weathering out of a nearby hillside, the skeleton of a dinosaur - the tyrannosaurus-like Albertosaurus. Trembling with excitement, you dig out the bones, whisk them off to palaeontologists at a nearby field site, and then, glowing with pride, fly back home and tell the newspapers about your once-in-a-lifetime discovery. You are: (A) a hero, (B) a criminal, (C) a pariah.

This "hypothetical" example actually happened to a family of amateur fossil hunters in 1994. The answer, once the returns were all in, was somewhere between criminal and pariah. Though they didn't know it at the time, the fossil lay on private ranchland. That meant that the would-be benefactors had trespassed and stolen private property. In removing the fossils from the rocks, they had destroyed the context of the remains - an irreplaceable loss of scientific information. And because they weren't trained in excavating fossils, they damaged the bones beyond repair. Quite a record for an afternoon's work.

Yet they so easily could have been heroes. All it would have taken was a little thought and the merest smattering of legal knowledge. The laws and regulations affecting fossil collecting can be hard to read and harder still to interpret, but the basic rules are simple. Everything boils down to knowing where you are.

If you parachute at random into the fossil-rich badlands of the American West and want to collect dinosaur bones, the rule where you land is likely to be simple: You can't. Most western land is federal property managed by agencies such as the Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. All of them, along with most Indian tribes, require that you get a permit before collecting vertebrate fossils. To do that, you must be a scientist attached to a university or museum certified as a "fossil repository." In many places you don't need a permit to gather non-vertebrate fossils such as shellfish, trilobites, plant impressions, or petrified wood, as long as you don't plan to sell them (commercial fossil hunters are barred from federal public land). And, of course, you don't need a permit if you are part of a team working for a scientist who has one.

The other major category of public land is that owned by the states. There the laws vary from restrictive to liberal. Wyoming, for example, has thrown out the welcome mat to private and commercial collectors interested in the spectacular fossil fish found in beds near the Green River. A lot of road cuts fall under state jurisdiction, so it's wise to phone your state's geological survey, bureau of mines, or environmental department to find out what rules apply.

Don't tell anyone but many years ago when the dinosaur bones were still fresh I was driving across Nebraska and stopped at a highway rest stop to shake the cobwebs out. For a reason I'll never truly be able to understand I started walking up a very steep ragged rocky hill. I got to a point about 100 feet above the rest stop and looked down and there was a dinosaur bone sticking right out of the ground. What did I do? Well… I'm not sure you're not going to tell anyone, so I'll keep that part to myself.


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    • profile image

      marcus 7 years ago


    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 7 years ago from Toronto

      Hmm... gotta check it out next time I'm in the area! Thanks!

    • eovery profile image

      eovery 7 years ago from MIddle of the Boondocks of Iowa

      The one in Wyo-Colo, is not famous, just a some of the natives know about it.

      Keep on hubbing!

    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 7 years ago from Toronto

      drbj: Well, since I am a law abiding citizen even though this occurred several millennia before the establishment of the United States or even the passage of homo sapiens across the Bering Land Bridge (ya, I'm THAT old) I would never THINK of appropriating it, however, just by sheer observation of the bone in the location where it was and of course not TOUCHED by me (hehe) it seemed to be a marine dino.

      eovery: I've been to Crater of Diamonds State Park and that's in Arkansas. I'm not aware of the one in WY/CO. The situation with the arrowheads is exactly what happens in Italy, especially in the south. If a construction excavation is going on and they unearth some priceless Roman underground structure the contractor quickly dynamites it. If they report it to the gov't the entire construction project will be put on hold for a little while... like 30 or 40 years. :)

    • eovery profile image

      eovery 7 years ago from MIddle of the Boondocks of Iowa

      I know a place in southeast Wyoming, Northern Colorada which has small diamonds in rocks. If you know what you are looking for you can make a few dollars a day searching. They have made it illegal to do this anymore. Also, you are not supposed to remove arrowheads anymore either. If you are digging a posthole and discover an indian artifacts, you are supposed to report it, and the land area will be deamed un useable and no digging nor can you do anything to disturb the area. So most ranchers will not report anything if they find it.

      Keep on hubbing!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 7 years ago from south Florida

      About that dino bone you may or may not have appropriated, do you know if it was from a baby dino or Bronto or a Rex model?

    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 7 years ago from Toronto

      nicomp: Don't tell me that! I am just finishing up a huge series on dino bones. Ladies and gentlemen of HubPages. Do not listen to nicomp. He is just a horse sticking out of a light fixture with a WWII medal drooling on some strange cat's head. Tune in to Hal's amazing series on all the great places in North America to check out dino bones. Coming soon to a HubPage near you! :)

      sheila b.: I lived not far from the Alberta dinosaur area and it was spectacular. You could just walk around and see bones in the hillsides. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone!

    • sheila b. profile image

      sheila b. 7 years ago

      It sounds so interesting to be living where there are dinosaur bones to be seen in the earth.

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 7 years ago from Ohio, USA

      Not much of a loss any more. We have a glut of dino bones.