CHADRON, Neb. – When three suspicious men were stopped on federal land in remote northwestern Nebraska in 2003, it didn’t take the U.S. Forest Service long to figure out what they were doing.
The men had dug an 18-by-10-foot hole more than 2 feet deep, leaving the fossilized bones of a prehistoric rhinoceros exposed. Plaster used to take casts of the bones and excavating tools also were found.
The men were poaching fossils – a practice the Forest Service says has become rampant in recent years at Oglala National Grasslands.
Although the men in this case were arrested and eventually convicted in federal court, Forest Service paleontologist Barbara Beasley said most fossil poachers are never caught. There is only one federal law enforcement officer patrolling 1.1 million acres of federal grasslands in Nebraska and South Dakota, which makes it easy for those with even the most elementary knowledge of archaeology to take what they want.
While the problem is prevalent in all fossil-rich areas, from Colorado to Montana, Forest Service spokesman Dan Jiron said it is particularly bad in Nebraska because of the lack of natural barriers like mountains or thick brush that may hinder access.
Federal officials also previously did not make fossil-poaching a priority. This has changed in the past few years, Beasley said.
Beasley and others who conduct fieldwork on federal lands are now undergoing training to be forest protection officers. That gives them the authority to investigate criminal cases but not to carry firearms.
Poachers include academics, those hoping to sell fossils on the black market and those who simply have their curiosity piqued by dinosaurs.
“It’s like panning for gold,” said Rusty Dersch, a Forest Service geologist. “The first time you find a few flakes, and you want to find a few more. It grows on you.”
Evidence of poaching shows up nearly every week, Beasley said. Exposed holes and excavation tools are routinely found on the federally protected grasslands. Of more than 162 grassland areas identified in the 1990s as holding fossils, about 30 percent showed evidence of poaching, Beasley said.
Dinosaur fossils also turn up by the hundreds at fossil shows, in catalogs and on Internet auction sites.
“We have researchers and academic scientists who find our permitting process difficult and just decide to go around it,” Beasley said. “But a lot of them just want to sell fossils.”