Be Careful Where You Dig For Dinos
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.