CNCC dinosaur dig kicks off Monday near Rangely

Lauren Blair

— A dinosaur by the name of Walter is about to see its first light of day in many millions of years.

Walter is central to the launch of Colorado Northwestern Community College’s new paleontology program, which gets under way Monday with its first student dig. Paleontology is the study of fossils — in this case, dinosaur fossils.

Paleontologist and CNCC Craig instructor Liz Johnson has been at the site of the dig for three weeks now alongside CNCC Rangely instructor Ellis Thompson-Ellis prepping the site for students to arrive.

“We’re taking down overburden, we’re doing a lot of jackhammering, a lot of sawing,” Johnson said. “It’s a lot of work. Our hands are tired, but we’re close to bone layer and we are excited and ready for our students to come on out.”

In spring of 2014, Thompson-Ellis and her husband, Josh Ellis, found the potentially rare set of dinosaur bones during a hike through the sagebrush, setting into motion a chain of events that could transform Colorado Northwestern Community College into a hotbed for paleontological study.

In February, CNCC’s Craig campus was appointed as an official Federal Fossil Repository for the Bureau of Land Management Colorado, where the bones will eventually be transported, stored and studied. The repository will also provide a lab setting for students to study the bones. The paleontology program’s first lab course will launch this fall.

The program’s two summer dig courses are two weeks long each, the first one running Monday through June 19, and the second session running June 22 through July 3. The dig will also play host to several community volunteer days, held on Saturdays, and a summer camp day for kids.

With the help of volunteer CNCC staff and faculty and 10 volunteers from North Carolina State University — which is partnering with CNCC to conduct research on the specimen and providing support in the excavation process — the crew has moved what Johnson estimated is about a living-room-sized chunk of rock from above Walter by hand.

“We have moved approximately 900 cubic feet of sandstone and put in over 600 man-hours at the site to get everything down to bone layer where our students will be working,” Thompson-Ellis said.

Though Johnson already has some idea what kind of dinosaur they may be working with and a few bones have been unearthed, she expects they will be able to determine what species it is by the end of the first student dig session.

“We wanted to teach people about this amazing resource, and not just for fun,” Johnson said. “We can teach them about biology, geology. They’re going to get a lot out of it from the education side as well as just shear fun.”

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1794 or or follow her on Twitter @CDP_Education.

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