This paleontologist explains why dinosaur fossils are at risk in Utah's Bears Ears region

Bears Ears is filled with unprotected fossils and sites of paleontological interest. Above Rob Gay points out burrows that were most likely made by ancient lungfish or amphibians. 

Image courtesy of Rob Gay

Paleontologist Robert Gay explains what would be lost if we don't protect Utah's Bears Ears region from looting and vandalism.

By Robert Gay - The Bears Ears region of southeastern Utah represents one of nature’s great works. Soaring cliffs enclose deep, winding canyons. Aspens and pines surround grassy meadows on high plateaus, while towering peaks shelter snow in their shadowed crags throughout the summer. Cottonwoods shade hidden creeks and springs, and tall spires and arches dot horizons that seem to stretch forever.

This area to the south of Canyonlands National Park is well known to hikers, backpackers, climbers, ranchers, and native peoples. Because of the significant scenic and recreational resources, along with the exceptionally important cultural ties by tribes to the area, the landscape of the Bears Ears has rightly been proposed as a national monument.

Images of Bears Ears, Utah, by Mason Cummings

It’s well known that a monument designation would help preserve the beauty, recreational opportunities and Native American archaeological sites embedded throughout the lands here. One other aspect of the Bears Ears area that is not well known and has received little public attention until recently is its highly significant paleontological resources.

The landscape is part of what makes the Bears Ears region so compelling for non-geologists and non-paleontologists, but without the underlying geology, the Bears Ears region would lack all the iconic geographic features that make it special to us today. The arches, canyons, spires, and ridges are the bones of the Earth, laid bare on the surface for us to see.

As it turns out, these rocks record a special time in Earth’s history; a nearly unbroken record of life on land starting over 300 million years ago and continuing for 150 million years. This time span chronicles the rise of vertebrate life on land, the greatest mass extinction in the history of the world, and the ascendancy of the dinosaurs as they became the dominant form of animal life on land. Very few places on Earth have such a record, and we can use the rocks from the Bears Ears area to tie together other pieces of the puzzle; older rocks in the Grand Canyon to the south, younger rocks near Moab to the north.

As it turns out, these rocks record a special time in Earth’s history; a nearly unbroken record of life on land starting over 300 million years ago and continuing for 150 million years. 

Keys to the dinosaur past

I have spent the majority of my professional paleontological life in this area, working to better understand this complicated story written in stone. I work on a group of rocks called the Chinle Formation. The Chinle Formation was laid down by ancient rivers flowing across a vast series of floodplains in what is now Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, draining into an inland arm of the prehistoric Pacific Ocean far to the northwest.

These rivers were filled with strange crocodile mimics, plant-eating crocodile relatives, giant amphibians, and early dinosaurs. Some of these ranged far and wide across the river systems. Some, however, have only been found in the Bears Ears area. Myself and my colleagues are working to describe several new species from the region. Many others still remain hidden in the rocks, waiting to be discovered and brought to the world’s attention.

Myself and my colleagues are working to describe several new species from the region. Many others still remain hidden in the rocks, waiting to be discovered and brought to the world’s attention.

A jaw fossil of a crocodile-like reptile is unearthed by Gay's team at Bears Ears. Image courtesy of Rob Gay.

Burrows likely made by ancient lungfish or amphibians (the light-colored, vertical shapes) are exposed and viewable in rock cliffs at Bears Ears. Image courtesy of Rob Gay.

Forever lost to land privatization

Unfortunately this vital area of research is threatened. An inactive uranium mine is looking to expand operations into fossil-rich areas bordering Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Looting of fossil bones and petrified wood is occurring at an alarming rate. Careless recreationalists have driven over and damaged fossil sites, and target shooters have literally shot reptile jaws, over 200 million years old, into fragments.

Utah Congressman Rob Bishop has led a proposed initiative that purports to protect lands for conservation while settling local land disputes, but his Public Lands Initiative does nothing to protect fossil resources in the Bears Ears region, and in fact transfers hundreds of known fossil localities to the state of Utah. The state’s reassurances that they will be better stewards of the land is belied by the recent sale at Comb Ridge. A state-owned parcel of land, one of the few previously described and studied by scientists, was put up for auction at the request of the Hole-in-the-Rock Foundation, a non-profit group dedicated to preserving the area’s history.

Comb Ridge area of Bears Ears, Utah, by Mason Cummings

Unfortunately, once the auction was set into motion, the Foundation was unable to purchase the land and was outbid by Lyman Family Farms, a family-run organization historically antagonistic to preservation of public lands that has successfully privatized hundreds of acres of Utah state land across the state. The fossil of this section are not protected under the land deed covenant from the state. This is disheartening as future scientists not be able to examine this land for additional fossil but also will be unable to test the previously published hypotheses, an essential part of science.

The fossil of this section are not protected under the land deed covenant from the state.

In recognition of this, dozens of avocational and professional paleontologists have joined me in signing a petition urging the President to take action under the Antiquities Act to explicitly protect the paleontological resources as part of a Bears Ears National Monument.

Without the extra protection, awareness, education, and funding that national monument status would bring, with paleontology explicitly mentioned in the proclamation, we stand to lose so much. We have just barely started to scratch the surface of the prehistory of this amazing place. Let us hope it is not too late to save it for the future.


Rob Gay is a paleontologist who has been working in and around the Bears Ears region for the last decade. His research primarily focuses on how life recovered from the Permian mass extinction and how dinosaurs came to dominate the surface of Earth. He received his degree from Northern Arizona University and is currently serving as a paleontologist and Curator of Education for the Museums of Western Colorado

 

 

 

 

 

 

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