Diggin' For Dinosaurs - South Dakota Follies
Digging for dinosaurs is not just for trained paleontological experts. The thrill of finding fossils can be experienced by anyone. All you need is a keen eye and a map to the nearest fossil grounds. However, you have to be very careful as to where you dig, as it can land you in a lot of trouble if you violate the law.
In Canada, where vertebrate fossils are considered part of the country's cultural heritage, you need an export permit to take large or valuable ones out of the country. Other nationwide laws forbid collecting in federal or provincial parks. Apart from that, fossils are administered by Canada's 10 provinces and 3 territories, and their approaches vary widely.
British Columbia, for instance, takes a fairly laissez-faire attitude toward fossil collecting, while dinosaur-rich Alberta and Saskatchewan severely restrict it. In Alberta, all vertebrate fossils, whether found on crown (public) or private land, belong to the province. Apart from "float" (eroded-out fossils lying loose on the ground), they may be collected only with permission from one of Alberta's two provincial museums, and specimens may not leave Alberta. Quebec museums reserve the right of first refusal on all fossils found in that province or put up for sale. To find out the details, get in touch with the province's department of tourism or with the cultural property officer at a provincial museum.
The classic how-not-to-do-it story is the saga of the world's most notorious dinosaur, Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex. In 1992, friends of commercial collector Pete Larson noticed Sue weathering out of a hillside on the South Dakota ranch of Maurice Williams. Larson paid the rancher $5,000 for the fossil, dug Sue out of the hill, and went to work cleaning the tyrannosaur's bones. The deal went sour when Williams learned that Sue might be worth millions. Years earlier, he announced, he had deeded his land to the government. As a result, Sue was not really his to sell. A paleontological nightmare ensued. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Guard raided Larson's business, Larson was tried and sent to prison on unrelated charges, and Sue went on the auction block.
Needless to say, the Sue fiasco has given private collectors a lot to think about. Here's what some of them recommend:
- Watch your step. Does the landowner really own the land? A rancher may be leasing the land from the federal government or may have deeded it to the government, as Maurice Williams did. If you have doubts, a visit to the county courthouse can reveal whose permission you really need.
- Be specific. Make sure you and the landowner understand what you are agreeing to. Are you allowed just to prospect for fossils, or may you collect them as well? If the agreement limits you to prospecting, you will have to strike another deal if anything exciting turns up.
- Write things down. Traditionally, getting permission has been as simple as a beer, a chat, and a hearty handshake. Nowadays, however, more and more fossil collectors are starting to ask for written agreements as a precaution against bait-and-switch tactics or the whims of fickle heirs.
In short, to stay on the right side of the law, you can't just heave some picks and shovels into your flatbed and head for dino territory. Instead, plan your route in advance. Know where you're going and what laws apply there, and get permission. Once you've dotted your i's and crossed your t's, then you can set off for God's country and rattle down that dusty gravel road.