Early morning sunrise washed over the Colorado National Monument outside of Grand Junction as I headed for a boulder-strewn knoll. There, 110 years ago, paleontologist Elmer Riggs discovered a previously unknown dinosaur that we now call Brachiosaurus. When it was alive some 150 million years ago, the plant-eating dinosaur measured 75 feet or more from teeth to tail.
It turned out that the area found by Riggs was rich in bones. I finally reached the backside of Riggs Hill at a quarry named for Edward Holt, who unearthed the remains of several other dinosaurs in 1937, including a Stegosaurus, an Allosaurus and another Brachiosaurus. Holt did not cart the bones away; he wanted to leave the fossils in the ground to become part of a natural-history exhibit for visitors.
Unfortunately, Holt failed to understand the crass desire of certain individuals to steal those specimens, and it wasn't long before a succession of souvenir hunters plundered the site. Every last fossil disappeared.
Sadly, this is not an isolated event. A few years ago, at the Mygatt-Moore Quarry near the Utah border, vandals spent the night ripping out a large set of bones. As they dragged their loot to a waiting truck, rocks and fossils fell from the bottom, and when a field crew arrived the next day, they found a trail of bones.
John Foster, curator of paleontology for the Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita, in western Colorado, says that over the years, he's had to learn a lot about poachers. Foster has found that vandalism occurs along trails, at quarries and anywhere else there might be the opportunity for theft. In some locations, the fossils are exposed to the elements, which means there's not much that can be done to protect them. In other cases, the fossils are part of an active "dig" and must be re-buried and deceptively covered every evening by the field crew to prevent midnight robberies. The Bureau of Land Management erects signs reminding people that "it's illegal to remove vertebrate fossils from public lands," but those signs seem to disappear even as the poaching continues.
Why do people steal fossils? Many times, it's old-fashioned greed. Not long ago in Montana, a man was accused of stealing a turkey-sized fossil of a raptor from a dig site. According to experts, the fossil was worth an estimated $150,000 to $400,000 on the open market.
Some paleo-thieves may excuse their illegal behavior by arguing that since dinosaur fossils are on public lands, they can be harvested by anyone. ("Hey, my tax dollars paid for these lands.") Or, they might say that because the original "owner" of these particular bones has long since died, the prehistoric fossils now belong to the masses. Or perhaps they tell themselves that the bones of giant animals millions of years old don't carry the same emotional weight of, say, human remains. Or maybe these Mesozoic marauders just want a unique conversation piece for the coffee table.
None of these so-called reasons make any sense morally or legally, and every theft does damage to our understanding of the past. Among paleontologists these days, there is a concerted effort to make the public aware of why fossils in situ are important. Bone-hunting may have persisted as a hobby in the West for many decades, but these days, there is no excuse for continuing the practice.
One remedy, says Foster, is citizen involvement. "The more that preservation-minded people frequent one of these sites," he says, "the more it will police itself." Since federal land-management agencies don't have near the law-enforcement staff necessary to patrol these areas, it's often up to hikers to act as deterrents to vandals.
For now, vandalism remains a part of paleontology. In Colorado, the problem is so acute that several sites are being intentionally buried by scientists and essentially "erased" from the geological map in order to prevent any possible paleo-jacking. But though these fossils may be gone, they are not forgotten; they remain within the land to be dug up and studied another day.