A trove of 200-million-year-old dinosaur fossils has been unearthed for the first time in Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, scientists announced at the Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists annual meeting earlier this month.
Scientists say it is one of the densest fossil areas discovered.
"Based on our small, initial excavation, we believe that this 63-meter (207-foot) site may be the densest area of Triassic period fossils in the nation, maybe the world," said paleontologist Robert Gay in a statement. "If this site can be fully excavated, it is likely that we will find many other intact specimens, and quite possibly even new vertebrate species."
The team excavated crocodile-like creatures known as phytosaurs that roamed the Earth with the earliest dinosaurs. Naturally, scientists nicknamed the bone bed the “Portal to NeCrocPolis”.
At the time of its discovery in 2016, the fossil cache was designated a national monument. Two years later, that’s no longer the case.
The Trump administration announced rollbacks of federal protections to the monument on February 2, shrinking it by 85 percent – more than 1 million acres – to encourage industrial growth under a 19th-century mining law.
Originally encompassing 1.35 million acres, the national designation meant that cliff dwellings, tribal artifacts, and fossils were protected. The rollback pushes NeCrocPolis outside of the boundaries of Bears Ears, giving control to the Bureau of Land Management.
While it is illegal for people to collect vertebrate fossils on federal lands without a scientific permit, less enforcement could mean more opportunities for looting and vandalism. This was the case in 2016, when part of a fossil skull was taken from the site before it received national monument status.
“It is extremely rare to find intact fossil skulls of specimens from this period,” said Gay of the three toothy, long-snouted fossils currently being examined.
Unlike most, this looting story has a happy ending.
After finding the missing skull fragment, Gay learned that a fossil matching his skull's description had been surrendered by an unpermitted collector to federal officials in Arizona. Using paleontological techniques, the team matched the fossil to the recent Bears Ears findings.
“This may be one of the only times a recovered fossil has been traced all the way back to the location where it was looted,” said Gay.
The researchers were working under a 2017 Bureau of Land Management grant program that funds research on national monuments and other national conservation lands. Funding could also be at risk without national designation.
The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology says shrinking such a large percentage of the area jeopardizes places of historic, scientific, and cultural significance. They estimate hundreds of scientists have conducted research there for almost a century. The organization, along with a coalition of five local Indian nations and conservation groups, filed a lawsuit last December.
Utah state officials and mining interests favor the president’s move, saying it restored local control over the state’s mineral resources.
The Federal Register is taking public comment until March 19. You can file your own comment here.