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Officials fight fossil hunting

Officials fight fossil hunting

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SCENIC - The Forest Service employee and the fossil poacher were both surprised when they met about a mile off the approved road into Indian Creek.

It was almost noon on a warm, bright February day in 2002. Forest Service employee Norm Eisenbraun had driven into the remote area to work on a prairie-dog project.

Poacher Brian Everton was returning to his pickup, carrying the 3-foot-long fossilized lower jaw of a 48-million to 43-million-year-old brontothere, a huge, rhinoceros-type critter. He had just finished digging it out of a sandstone hillside in the Indian Creek area on Buffalo Gap National Grassland near Scenic. Eisenbraun warned Everton that what he was doing was illegal. Everton ignored the warning, put the fossil in his truck and left.

The jawbone was museum quality, according to Barb Beasley, a Forest Service paleontologist based in Chadron, Neb., who oversees fossils on national forests and national grasslands in seven states.

"It was beautiful, white bone, really thick, well preserved," Beasley said. "When Norm saw it, it was pretty much intact."

But when Forest Service law enforcement officers recovered the fossil at Everton's home the next day, the jawbone was in pieces, Beasley said.

In July, a federal judge sentenced Everton to a year's probation for removing the fossil and damaging it. He also had to pay $800 in restitution, a $300 fine, and $50 for victim's awareness. He also had to perform 40 hours of community service with the Forest Service.

Everton is among the relative handful of poachers who have been caught taking fossils illegally from federal land, according to Beasley.

But she said many more poachers who don't get caught are taking valuable fossils.

Growing problem

She said poaching has become an increasing problem in the past 10 years, particularly after the popularity of movies such as "Jurassic Park."

Inventories conducted by area universities on the Nebraska National Forest's Oglala National Grassland in Nebraska and Buffalo Gap National Grassland in South Dakota found that more than a fourth of 296 fossil sites showed evidence of poaching.

"Anytime we go out and look, we always come across evidence of poaching," Beasley said.

Poaching is prolific in Toadstool Geologic Park in northwest Nebraska, because the road into the park is so good, she said.

But poachers are also getting into Indian Creek in South Dakota, even though it is much more inaccessible. Everton had to bounce along on a rough dirt track for about five miles and cross Indian Creek about 15 times to get to his dig site, she said.

The poachers come out to Indian Creek, Toadstool and other sites when they dry out after rains or snowfalls. Every rain exposes more fossils, Beasley said.

National Park Service paleontologist Rachel Benton says poaching has become an increasing problem at Badlands National Park, too.

Benton said 52 fossil poaching cases were prosecuted in 2002 at the park. Some of those were just casual illegal collecting.

Collection of any fossil, rock, or plant is illegal on national parks, except by permit.

On much of the Nebraska National Forest (including the Buffalo Gap and Fort Pierre national grasslands, people are allowed to collect invertebrate fossils, but taking vertebrate fossils (such as brontotheres) without permits is against federal law. Collecting invertebrates is also prohibited on small Special Interest Areas of the Fall River District.

Taking anything worth $1,000 or more is a felony, Beasley said.

Depending on the facts and circumstances of the case, felony fossil theft could be punishable by up to 10 years in prison plus fines, according to Bob Mandel, supervisory assistant U.S. attorney in Rapid City.

Government officials and many academic paleontologists say fossil theft is causing the loss of valuable fossils and scientific information. Some others, including the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, disagree. (See related story.)

Who are the poachers?

Beasley says poachers don't fit into a single demographic. Many are just members of the general public wandering around on public lands. Some are unaware that picking up fossils is illegal.

"Others take them for commercial purposes or because they just have to have a souvenir," she said.

Benton noted, however, that Badlands National Park posts signs and hands out brochures warning visitors that fossil collecting is against the law.

The commercial poachers have found big money in fossils, Beasley says. Fossils from the Oglala and Buffalo Gap national grasslands are sold around the world for prices ranging from a few dollars for teeth to $250,000 for brontothere and mosasaur specimens. (Mosasaurs were large marine reptiles.)

Fossil theft cases have increased along with the commercial fossil market over the past 10 or 15 years, officials say.

Even some academics collect fossils illegally, not wanting to bother with permits, Beasley said.

Why don't these illegal collectors just search for fossils on private land?

Many private landowners charge high fees to collectors looking for fossils, especially since the sale of the Tyrannosaurus rex named Sue for more than $8 million, Beasley said.

Access to most public land is free.

Plus, until recently, poaching on public land has been relatively risk free.

"We're hoping to increase that risk," Beasley said.

But she admits that most poachers have not gotten caught. There is just too much territory and too few sets of government eyes. There have been three convictions in recent years for poaching on the grasslands, and a handful of other cases that didn't go to court, she said.

And the poachers sometimes know the ground better even than the government paleontologists, Beasley says.

Poaching is also difficult to prove, unless, like Everton, the poacher is caught in the act, Mandel said.

The Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City and three of its principals were sentenced in 1996 for misdemeanors in connection with fossil theft.

Since then, three other men (including Everton) were found guilty of stealing fossils on the national grasslands, and another man was found guilty of stealing fossils from the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Other cases are pending, according to Travis Lunders, law enforcement officer with the Wall and Fort Pierre ranger districts.

Increasing awareness

The Forest Service, National Park Service and academics such as Bishop hope to increase awareness of fossil theft and its costs.

One strategy is to train federal employees to pay more attention to what people are doing on public lands. The Nebraska National Forest has only one full-time law enforcement officer and one part-time officer to patrol 1.1 million acres.

But range specialists and others can provide more eyes and ears on the ground, Lunders said.

Forest Service staffers also hope to better educate the public that poaching is a problem.

"If you come across something, you are likely the very first person to ever see this," Beasley said. "That holds a lot of responsibility." The Forest Service asks that visitors who spot fossils call the local Forest Service office.

Already, the Forest Service gets some help from interested citizens and area ranchers who report suspected poachers.

"People really do take ownership," Lunders said. "They'll find an area they really like … and keep an eye out for things that are going on."

Even a pilot from Ellsworth Air Force Base provided a tip. As the pilot flew over Indian Creek on his final approach to the base, he noticed a group of people scattering as he flew overhead. That made him suspicious, so when he got back to base, he called the Forest Service. Investigators found a group of academic collectors who had gone outside of their permit area. They were admonished but not prosecuted.

Wilderness impact

The Forest Service's revised management plan for the Buffalo Gap National Grassland recommends that Indian Creek be made a wilderness area. However, under the Forest Service recommendation, the six-mile dirt track into Indian Creek would remain open.

The Sierra Club and the South Dakota Wildlife Federation urge that the road be closed to all vehicle traffic.

Don Bright, supervisor of the Nebraska National Forest, says closing the road could help deter fossil poachers. "People get in there and get in some of those canyons and unless we're patrolling, we never see them," Bright said.

Even if the road remains open, he said, wilderness designation would allow access only to the road. "It would be easier to see tracks and follow up on that," Bright said.

Although wilderness would not change the poaching regulations, it could influence sentencing for fossil poachers, Beasley said.

Surveying for fossils

Forest Service officials also hope that better inventorying of fossil sites will help prevent poaching or aid in catching poachers. South Dakota School of Mines & Technology and the University of Nebraska, along with a private firm, have inventoried all of the units of the Nebraska National Forest in Nebraska and much of the Fall River District in South Dakota.

Indian Creek has not been surveyed, but this month Tech will start a fossil site inventory that likely will take four or five years to complete, according to Gale Bishop, director of the Museum of Geology and Paleontology at Tech.

The inventory also will take note of sites that have already been dug. Forest Service officials will cross-check those to see if they were permitted sites.

Having all those researchers out in the field helps deter fossil poachers, too, Benton said.

Meanwhile, poachers continue to do their own surveys. Lunders has noticed a lot of vehicle tracks well off the designated road in a couple of areas in the south end of Indian Creek, near the South Unit of Badlands National Park on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

He points out lines of footprints zigzagging across steep sandstone hillsides where fossils are likely to be exposed by rain.

Those footprints probably weren't made by casual hikers, Lunders said. "They were here for a purpose."

Beasley and Lunders hope the Tech surveyers find the fossils on those hillsides before the poachers do.

Contact Steve Miller at 394-8417 or steve.miller@rapidcityjournal.com

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