Palaeontologists Are Suing President Trump For Shrinking Those National Monuments

Some of the world's most remarkable fossils have been found in the US, thanks to the hard work of palaeontologists all over the world who study there. This is the skull of Sue, the most complete T. rex fossil ever found. Geoffrey Fairchild/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY 2.0

The Trump administration’s shrinking of two major national monuments in Utah earlier this month sparked an outcry from conservationists, environmentalists, Native American groups, and scientists. Taking a cue from other groups planning legal action against the federal government, an association of palaeontologists has now announced that they’re going to sue the President of the United States too.

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), an international non-profit coalition of like-minded researchers, recently announced that along with their partners, they “will be taking legal action to block Trump’s cuts”.

“Not only do we believe that key paleo resources will be endangered when they are removed from the monuments’ boundaries, but we believe that the President lacks the legal authority to reduce those boundaries,” they explained in a statement.

The SVP isn’t just a collection of researchers looking into the past and rifling through the ground for that next big discovery; they’re also quite proudly an advocacy group. They have spent much of their time working to protect fossils on federal land, and in particular, they promote the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, a 2009 law that ensures sensible regulation and protection of fossiliferous parts of the country.

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It’s no surprise then that they’re pursuing legal action with regards to the shrinkage of these two enormous national monuments. Although the reasons given for the shrinkage remain ambiguous and unsubstantiated at best, the Trump administration’s record of using phrases like “federal overreach” to cover up industry-led erosions of scientific work doesn’t exactly bode well.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke expressly stated that this controversial move to remove 8,100 square kilometers (3,100 square miles) from the protected national monument inventory had nothing to do with resource extraction. A report in the Washington Post, linking a uranium mining company’s lobbying to the shrinkage of the Bears Ears National Monument, made such a claim sound decidedly suspect – and the SVP have pointed this out too.

“Loss of monument status endangers funding streams for paleontological research and exposes sites to damage or destruction from multiple-use activities, which could feasibly include ranching, mining, or shale gas extraction,” the SVP have noted.

Speaking to Scientific American, several palaeontologists have already been protesting that these monuments contain hundreds of thousands of valuable fossil discoveries, and that the rich tapestry of evolutionary biology they represent will be threatened by this decision.

“Scientifically important palaeontological resources motivated the creation of both monuments,” the SVP emphasize. Their shrinkage, then, is a clear affront to scientific principles and research, aspects that clearly were not up for discussion when the government’s decision was made.

The SVP takes pains to highlight that enormous sections of the geological record will be taken away from both the Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Large sections of the Permian-Triassic boundary – which details the worst mass extinction of all time, and one that was driven by a dramatic type of climate change – will be unprotected, for example.

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This action can be added to a litany of moves by scientists that, when put together, represent an unprecedented form of resistance.

This year alone, whistleblowing scientists have spoken out in a deafening chorus. There have been marches on Washington in the name of academia, children are suing the government on climate change, and plenty of researchers are now running for Congress.

Science is under attack, but we can take solace in the fact that scientists are actually trying to do something about it.

Are you a scientist that could be affected by this – and future – decisions to shrink America’s national monuments? If so, get in touch here.

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