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Eye On Boise

State gearing up for future fossil finds

Idaho could find a whole lot more big fossils - wooly mammoths and the like - in coming years as big energy transmission projects spread across the fossil-rich southern and eastern portions of the state, and state officials want to gear up by shifting some duties from the state Historical Society to the Museum of Natural History at Idaho State University, which has the paleontology expertise. The plan hinges, in part, on finding funding at cash-strapped ISU. "We're really supportive of this," ISU lobbyist Kent Kunz told the Associated Press today. "Our museum is a great repository of paleontological resources. We just need to figure out a way to pay for it." A House committee voted today to introduce legislation to make the shift; it'll be debated more at a full hearing. Click below for the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

ISU museum may take on fossil oversight from state
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Big energy projects awash in federal stimulus cash could accelerate discoveries of woolly mammoths and other ancient creatures in Idaho, so the state wants to put a different agency in charge.

Officials have recommended shifting oversight of such excavations from the State Historical Society to the Museum of Natural History at Idaho State University because the school has the expertise.

ISU officials in Pocatello support the move, but said it could mean new annual costs of $150,000 to hire a paleontologist, develop educational programs for students and help utilities choose locations for their projects.

With the school already slashing budgets to help Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter fill a budget hole, ISU lobbyist Kent Kunz worries about an unfunded mandate, especially if energy projects that require building roads and shifting mountains of earth really do yield a bonanza of old bones.

"We're really supportive of this," Kunz said Wednesday. "Our museum is a great repository of paleontological resources. We just need to figure out a way to pay for it."

House State Affairs Committee members Wednesday agreed to debate the shift at an upcoming hearing, though resolving funding could be tough.

Idaho's geological strata have surrendered a diverse booty over the years. Among the discoveries: 30 complete horse fossils from southern Idaho's Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument; spiral-toothed sharks, fish and corals from the phosphate belt along the Wyoming border that was once a shallow, warm sea; and Pleistocene camels, short-faced bears and ground sloths near the 72,000-year-old American Falls Lake that once encompassed present-day Pocatello.

Since 1963, the State Historical Society has been the go-to agency for issuing permits to dig at such vertebrate paleontological sites. But discoveries of animals with backbones on state land that require an excavation permit have been rare.

It's been more than 15 years since workers dredging sediment from the bed of Tolo Lake near Grangeville unearthed remains of up to seven mammoths and an ancient bison in the prehistoric muck.

But state archaeologist Ken Reid thinks big cross-country power projects in energy corridors across Idaho's fossil-rich southern and eastern reaches could lead to new finds, taxing his resources and expertise. He points to the planned billion-dollar transmission projects like Idaho Power Co.'s and Rocky Mountain Power's Gateway West and the Southwest Intertie.

"One of the reasons I wanted to transfer this authority is so people who have the field skills will be able to identify deposits in advance," said Reid.

While oversight of ancient creatures would change, responsibility for archaeological sites associated with people would stay with Reid and his staff of nine at the State Historic Preservation Office, which is funded by the National Park Service.

Those human discoveries in Idaho include fading wagon ruts left by Oregon trail pioneers in the 1850s and excavations along ancient Snake River migration routes that have surrendered 13,000-year-old projectile points.

Paul Kjellander, Idaho Office of Energy Resources director, said cooperation between his agency and Reid has been excellent, including on stimulus-funded energy efficiency projects in old buildings that must be done in a manner that doesn't compromise their historical integrity.

Kjellander doesn't expect that to change, should responsibility for paleontological deposits shift to the ISU museum.

"You don't want to trample on the history of this state, whether it's the ancient history or the recent history. Those things matter," he said.


On the Net:

— For the Idaho Museum of Natural History Web site

— For the Idaho State Historical Society Web site

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

Eye On Boise

News, happenings and more from the Idaho Legislature and the state capital.