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Poachers Illegally Taking Fossils in S.D.

September 22, 2003

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) _ Millions of years ago, huge marine reptiles called mosasaurs swam around the inland sea over present-day western South Dakota, followed later by other creatures such as huge rhinoceros-like creatures called brontotheres and saber-toothed cats.

These creatures and others wandered all over what is now western South Dakota.

But now, some of them are leaving the area in the backs of trucks. And some are being taken illegally from federal land by poachers seeking to sell their fossilized skeletons.

Fossil poachers, especially those who are poorly equipped and unskilled, are costing the public valuable scientific information and precious resources, government and academic paleontologists say.

``Those fossils in that land belong to you and I, to all the citizens of the country,″ said Gale Bishop, director of the Museum of Geology and Paleontology at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. ``These people are stealing from federal lands and stealing from all of us.″

U.S. Forest Service paleontologist Barb Beasley says fossilized skeletons stolen from public land here include brontotheres, mosasaurs, land tortoises, pond turtles, saber-toothed cats, early horses, giant pigs, rhinos and sharks.

The federal case against the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in the 1990s helped bring fossil theft to light and to show how much some fossils could be worth, Beasley said. The Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur named Sue, which was discovered by the institute but awarded by a federal judge to the rancher on whose land it was found, sold for more than $8 million.

Pete Larson of the Black Hills Institute, says, however, that the government’s narrow restrictions on fossil collecting are a bigger threat to fossils and to science than poaching. Larson, his two partners and the institute were found guilty of a handful of misdemeanors for stealing fossils on federal land. The institute also was convicted of one felony for retention of a stolen fossil, which it bought from a previous owner.

None of those charges related to the Tyrannosaurus Rex. A jury acquitted them of 72 counts and did not reach verdicts on 68 more counts. Larson was convicted of two felonies: failure to report traveler’s checks worth $31,700 upon entering the United States and failing to report $15,000 he took to Peru. He served 18 months in a federal prison.

But Larson said he does not condone poaching. He called poachers ``stupid people who somehow feel that it’s a wrong policy and so they just ignore it.″

But Larson said the bigger problem is that not enough people are collecting fossils. The number of fossils lost to poachers is small compared to the millions lost each year to weathering, he said.

``Less than a thousandth of a percent of fossils that are lost each year are being poached,″ Larson said. ``All these fossils are weathering away. Why don’t we go out and pick them up?″

Larson also criticized a proposal in Congress to further tighten restrictions on fossil collecting on public lands.

A bill pending in Congress would make the rules governing fossil collection on federal land more uniform and would tighten restrictions on commercial collecting. The bill, passed earlier this summer by the Senate, now awaits action in the House resource committee.

The bill would continue to allow casual collecting of invertebrate and plant fossils on lands governed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. However, casual collecting of such fossils would still be prohibited in national parks.

The bill would require permits for vertebrate fossil collection on all federal land. The bill also makes it illegal to exchange, receive or sell a fossil if the person knew or should have known it was illegally taken.

But Larson said the government should change its policies to allow more people, not fewer, to collect fossils.

``We as scientists need the help of amateurs, we need the help of commercial entities like Black Hills Institute, as well,″ Larson said.

Amateurs and commercial collectors are limited to collecting on private land. Larson said permits could be issued to amateur collectors willing to go through a training program.

``You don’t have to have a doctorate in paleontology to collect fossils well,″ he said.

In fact, Larson says most of the significant fossil finds have been made by amateurs or commercial collectors.

Beasley, Forest Service paleontologist for a seven-state region, acknowledges that some fossils are lost because researchers can’t get at them. But she also points out that fossils had been deteriorating for thousands of years before man showed up.

Beasley agrees that amateurs provide valuable contributions to paleontology. But she also says unskilled poachers can damage fossils as they take them out or transport them.

``Doing it correctly takes a lot longer,″ she said.

Many poachers, even if they are skilled enough to properly preserve fossils, are not collecting related information from the sites, which means a loss of scientific information, Beasley said.

``We’re losing information about fossil ecosystems,″ she said. ``We’re losing recreational and educational opportunities for the public. We’re losing scientific data.″

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