Fossils on private lands find collectors and critics

Oct 18, 2013

Wyoming was once wet, balmy, and full of creatures like dinosaurs. Today, their fossils are slowly weathering out of the ground. If the bones happen to be on public land, researchers are granted permits to dig for them and the fossils have to end up in a public repository. But on private land, anyone can dig and they can do whatever they want with the specimens. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports that commercial, or independent collectors, are sometimes eyed warily.

IRINA ZHOROV: Bob Johnson’s family has been on their ranch outside of Lusk since 1887. Paleontologists started knocking on their door not too long afterward.  

BOB JOHNSON: Some paleontologist had come out and found some fossil remains of something and marked it on a map so we were literally known worldwide. It might’ve been a very small clique, but people knew about it.

ZHOROV: Johnson says he opens his land up to fossil hunters in the name of knowledge, but he wouldn’t be opposed to a big, valuable dinosaur find, either.

JOHNSON: Not expecting, but it’s always…there’s a little grain of hope.

ZHOROV: Paleontologist JP Cavigelli visits the ranch frequently. For now, he pays Johnson for access to his land with a bottle of Captain Morgan.

Cavigelli’s Subaru is weighed down with camping gear, fossils, and digging equipment. He parks on a sandy road, walks a ways through shrub and prickly desert brush, and plops down on an indistinct mound of dirt. He checks on this spot regularly.

JP CAVIGELLI: Let’s see what we can find, with my little knife here. That’s the bone, that’s the sandstone. Hear the difference?

ZHOROV: What looks like rocks scattered on the ground are actually fragments of dinosaur bones and remains of other ancient creatures.

CAVIGELLI: There’s piece of bone here and there, there’s a little blue thing here, that’s probably a Garr scale…

ZHOROV: Cavigelli works at the Tate Geological Museum in Casper. In that role, he’s an educator.

But he also used to run a fossil outfitting business and still collects fossils for his own private collection. He doesn’t see a conflict between public research and independent collecting.

CAVIGELLI: I think some of the good stuff that’s come out of the commercial industry, especially, is we have these fossil fish quarries in Western Wyoming where they collect thousands of fossil fish every summer. But because they’re digging big holes and aggressively digging, collecting, they find the cool stuff, the rarities, the turtles, the crocodiles, the mammals, and the birds. And the rarities are what make commercial outfits earn their keep.

ZHOROV: Others are not so flexible.

JAY LILLEGRAVEN: The fossil record is an international, cultural, and educational resource.

ZHOROV: That’s retired University of Wyoming professor of geology and zoology, Jay Lillegraven.

LILLEGRAVEN: I believe that fossils belong to all of humanity and they should not be owned by individuals, they should not be affixed with price tags.

ZHOROV: Lillegraven’s stance is philosophical, but borne of practical considerations. 

LILLEGRAVEN: Ranchers, landowners, are given the impression that fossils do have a monetary value and everybody wants to be rich, everybody wants to have enough money to live, I can’t blame them, but those of us in the professional line of paleontology never have access to that kind of money. 

ZHOROV: He says museums and public collections can be outbid by private collectors and science could suffer as a result. Lillegraven adds that unless a public institution does the excavation, scientific data collection may be incomplete.

Mike Triebold disagrees. He runs a paleontology business. He digs on private land and sells fossils to private collectors, works for public museums, and runs his own museum.

MIKE TRIEBOLD: I would say that most of the people who do this for a living are making a serious commitment and have been probably either scientifically trained or have a tremendous amount of experience by the time they’re doing it for a living. And if you are doing it for a living you have to provide all of this information or you can’t compete with those of us that do.  

ZHOROV: Furthermore, he says it’s not as though the high prices for choice fossils are just made up.

TRIEBOLD: It’s not the ooh aah factor that gives it the big price, it’s the fact that you have just put thousands upon thousands of hours’ worth or work into it and you’re rolling the dice and if you don’t get a good price for it you’re going to go broke.

ZHOROV: Triebold pays landowners he works with 10 percent.

He adds that a lot of the stuff found on private land ends up in public collections anyway. His outfit has a policy that if they find a rare specimen they try extra hard to get it into a public repository. Indeed, he says independent collectors have a lot to offer.

TRIEBOLD: If you happen to be a specialist, we are free to collaborate back and forth to add to your body of knowledge because we’re not affiliated with any institution. We are independent collectors.

ZHOROV: He also says independent collectors are more likely to have the time and money to dig for fossils. That could be a good thing for everyone involved since Wyoming has a lot of private land that’s slowly eroding away to unveil fresh bones. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Irina Zhorov.