Resurrecting history

August 1, 2018

BUTTE COUNTY — Imagine being the first person to set eyes upon a piece of history that has been buried for more than 65 million years. That is what local paleontologist Walter “Raptorman” Stein and his wife Heather Stein offer curious explorers from around the world.

PaleoAdventures, based out of Belle Fourche, is an independent commercial paleontology company dedicated to helping preserve the vertebrate fossils, such as those of dinosaurs and marine reptiles, long buried under the surface of the Northern Plains. The Steins, who started PaleoAdventures in 2005, provide a wide range of services including paleontological education and tours.

This reporter accompanied the Steins on a Saturday tour with a dozen amateur diggers and adventurers.

The wheels of the adventure convoy halted about an hour-and-a-half drive from Belle Fourche into the very rural parts of Butte County. Tooth Draw was the name of the dig site. Appropriately named, Stein said, because of the large number of ancient fossilized teeth found in the area. In addition to mammals, turtles, fish, crocodiles, and birds, Stein said that there are approximately 20 different dinosaur genera known to be found in the Hell Creek Formation.

The Hell Creek Formation is a division of rocks in North America dating to the end of the Cretaceous Period some 65.5 million years ago. Named for exposures studied on Hell Creek, near Jordan, Mont., it occurs in eastern Montana and portions of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

The formation is a series of fresh and brackish-water clays, mudstones, and sandstones deposited by fluvial activity in fluctuating river channels and deltas and occasional peaty swamp deposits along the low-lying eastern continental margin fronting the late Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway.

Walter Stein, a professional dinosaur fossil hunter and vertebrate paleontologist who specializes in Late Cretaceous theropods, has discovered, excavated, or prepared more than 30 dinosaur skeletons and hundreds of isolated fossils over the last two decades.

Stein’s discovery of “Sir William,” a juvenile Tyrannosaur skeleton collected in Petroleum County, Mont., was one of his most notable discoveries, named after one of the Steins’ two sons. Additionally, Stein authored the books, “So You Want To Dig Dinosaurs; A Field Manual on the Practice, Principles, and Politics of Vertebrate Paleontology,” published in 2002, and “The Top 256 Rules of Paleontology,” published in 2009.”

Heather Stein, a nationally certified massage therapist, assists Stein in the dinosaur business, working in both the field and the lab where she restores and stabilizes fossil specimens.

Each summer, the couple who reside in Florida during the winter months, leads tours for 10-11 weeks, averaging between 500-600 people each year.

In addition to the prevalence of the right age and type of rock in the plains area, Stein said the large amount of privately owned lands in the South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana make for the perfect dinosaur fossil hunting conditions. Independent commercial outfits like Stein’s are solely permitted to work on private land, but not publicly owned lands.

“So you combine all those factors and that makes the tri-state area here one of the best places in the world to find stuff (dinosaur fossils),” Stein said.

Stein has even had a dinosaur named after him. Stein said in 2005, his fellow paleontologist and friend, Robert DePalma discovered the skeleton of a large dromaeosaurid in Harding County. Subsequently, in 2015, the type species Dakotaraptor steini was named. The generic name combines a reference to South Dakota and the Dakota people with a Latin raptor, “plunderer,” meaning the “plunderer of Dakota.” The specific name honors Stein.

The story goes like this – Stein, DePalma and other fellow paleontologist regularly had late night conversations about paleontology after long days of digging. On one such night, Stein said, DePalma asked him – seemingly off the cuff – if Stein, who is particularly fascinated by raptors, discovered a raptor what he’d name the animal.

“And I said, well, I’d call it Dakotaraptor,” Stein said. “We’ve got Utahraptor, we should have Dakotaraptor.”

“And he (DePalma) goes, ‘hmm, OK then,’” Stein said. “Smiling … not telling me that he’d just found one like that week.”

DePalma told Stein some time later that he’d named his discovery after him.

Dakotaraptor was though to be about 18-feet-long, which makes it one of the largest dromaeosaurids known, with long arms with one of the lower arm bones shows quill knobs, demonstrating that it was most likely feathered. The Dakotaraptor is also thought to have had long rear legs with a very large sickle claw on the second toe, which could have been used to kill relatively large plant-eating dinosaurs.

Those on Saturday’s tour included rookie diggers and more experienced adventurers.

Andi Gonzalez and her mother Theresa Snell, of Columbus, Ohio, planned their trip to South Dakota to check digging for dinosaur bones off Snell’s bucket list. The pair spent three days digging in the badlands of Butte County. Gonzalez, who dreamed of becoming a paleontologist as a child, said she and her mother searched for fossilized shells in Pennsylvania together when she was younger. When her mother spoke about wanting to participate in a paleontological dig, Gonzalez said she jumped at the chance to share the experience with Snell.

“I figured I’m the one to go with her since it’s king of my thing, too,” Gonzalez said.

Snell found a raptor tooth on the first day of the mother-daughter adventure.

“Then she found an adolescent T-Rex tooth,” Gonzalez said of her mother.

The trip was well worth the travel, Gonzalez said.

“We knew we we’re going to always come out and find the big bones,” she said. “It’s just the idea of the dig and just finding a little bit here and there. To be honest, I’m happy with garfish scales and turtle shells and gator teeth. Because you’re paying for the experience, and the experience is you don’t know what these rocks are hiding.”

Gonzalez said she’s already looking forward to another trip to dig in the South Dakota dirt.

Peggy Bias, a Rapid City high school teacher, said she found a rare vertebrae bone on her first trip out with the Steins three or four years ago.

“It was just so exciting,” she said. “I was brushing and all of a sudden, this perfect circle started immerging and I got a little excited.”

The find was so rare in fact that Stein kept the fossil for scientific research.

“Which made it even better,” Bias said. “What, it’s so cool I can’t even keep it? Yay!”

Ever since then, Bias said, she just has to keep coming back. Saturday was her fourth trip out to the dig site this year.

“It’s fun,” Bias said. “You just never know what you’re going to find.”

For more information about the Stein’s or PaleoAdventures, visit the website: http://paleoadventures.com/index.html or the Facebook page.

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