Colorado Northwestern Community College breaks ground with new paleontology program
Recent discovery offers rare opportunity for students
Craig — Colorado Northwestern Community College will welcome one of Northwest Colorado’s oldest residents to its Craig campus this summer, or at least what remains of it — a dinosaur named Walter.
Last spring, a CNCC instructor found a 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.
The discovery culminated this week in the announcement that CNCC’s Craig campus is now an official Federal Fossil Repository for the Bureau of Land Management Colorado.
The appointment sets the stage for the college to become a major hub for fossils and for those who want to study them. As a repository, it can house any dinosaur bones or other fossils from BLM lands within the state of Colorado, as well those donated from private lands.
“This is big. There are no other community colleges in the nation that we know of that are a paleontology repository,” said CNCC science instructor in Craig and paleontologist, Liz Johnson. “It’s very rare for a community college to do this.”
The designation alone holds great importance for the future of the community college and even Craig, but it’s just one card in a flush hand that college officials have been keeping close in recent months while they hammer out the details.
In tandem with its new repository status, CNCC has also announced it will launch a paleontology program, set to kick off with a student dig this summer.
And it’s the focus of the dig that could yet be the most exciting card in the hand. The fossils discovered near the Rangely campus by CNCC science instructor, Ellis Thompson-Ellis and her husband, Josh Ellis, could be even more rare than a Tyrranosaurus rex, according to Johnson.
“This is groundbreaking,” Johnson said. “I have been in the field many years. I have known people in the field that have done this their whole, entire lives. They have never seen stuff like this.”
Though Johnson cannot be entirely positive about the nature of this discovery until it has been excavated and researched, she is thrilled by the prospects.
“This specimen will put CNCC on the map,” Johnson said. “Not only the specimen, but the whole program will too.”
Both the program and the dinosaur — named “Walter” after Thompson-Ellis’ great dane — will likely bring students and researchers from around the country to Craig to study the bones.
“This is why we’ve been working to get all our ducks in a row. This amazing specimen, we want to keep it here in Craig,” Johnson said. “If we did not go through all the steps to make this a repository, it would go to Denver and it would no longer stay in this region.”
The repository status was officially granted to the Colorado Northwestern Field Museum, an affiliate created by CNCC, on Tuesday.
“We want to thank CNCC for taking the initiative to pursue repository status and for what it will mean for education and fossil curation in Northwest Colorado,” said BLM Colorado State Director Ruth Welch in a press release Friday. “Our state has always been at the forefront of paleontological study and we are happy to continue that tradition through this partnership.”
The college joins the ranks of seven other BLM Colorado repositories in the state — including the Denver Museum of Nature and Science — which can house different types of collections including paleontological (dinosaur) specimens and archaeological (human) artifacts.
Since fossils found on federal lands belong to the public, federal repositories bear a great burden of responsibility to preserve their collections for researchers and posterity.
The college was able to qualify to become a paleontological repository because Johnson is a trained paleontologist who is equipped to curate the collection. It was also a stroke of luck that the new Craig campus building had room to spare in the basement, and could meet strict temperature, humidity and fire regulations to be able to store the specimens.
“You usually don’t have both the building and the expertise,” Johnson said. “To have both at the same time and stuff out our back door, this is the best case scenario.”
As a community college, CNCC is an education-based — not research-based — institution. Because the specimen promises to be significant to the scientific community, Johnson and her colleagues are currently in discussions to partner with research institution North Carolina State University to study the specimen.
The summer dig is set to run in two sessions from June 8 to June 19 and June 22 to July 3. Students will have the opportunity to practice doing paleontological field work under the guidance of Johnson, Thompson and world-class paleontologists.
The program will be the first ever to cross between both campuses. Rangely will host students during the excavations, after which the bones will be transported and stored on the Craig campus. Courses in lab techniques will be offered during the fall and spring semesters on the Craig campus, teaching students how to identify, catalog, store and curate fossils as well as how to make three-dimensional replicas.
Johnson explained that there are relatively few colleges that offer courses in paleontology, and almost all are four-year institutions.
“It’s a lot of work but we are in a fortunate scenario where we are close to our fossils, we don’t have to pay transport, we have credentials to do this and we get to use it as an educational resource,” Johnson said.
CNCC President Russell George hopes to see the paleontology program become a vital part of the college’s educational lineup. For him, the program is especially significant because it connects the college to its unique location.
“I always wondered why there wasn’t more academic activity in Northwest Colorado focused on paleontology,” George said. “The college has, from the beginning, prided itself on where we are. I don’t know many colleges that sit in such a dramatic and beautiful place, with so many opportunities to do things special to this place, so this is really a fit. The dinosaurs were in this place millions of years ago, and now we’re here.”
The new paleontology program and repository status promises great returns for the college and for the communities of Craig and Rangely as well.
“It’s really something a local area can be proud of, and if that draws in more students, more visitors, it can help bolster eco-tourism in the area,” said Harley Armstrong, regional paleontologist for the BLM Colorado State Office.
Johnson and George agreed that the developments could have a positive economic impact for both communities, and could potentially lead to creating a museum for the collection at some future date.
But for now, Johnson and her peers are ecstatic with the educational opportunities the new program will provide students.
“Paleontology is a gateway science,” Johnson said. “You have to know the geology of the rocks, the biology of the animals you’re digging up, even chemistry and physics… It opens the doors to so many things and I want to share that with people, particularly people who have never had those opportunities.”
With such a serious passion for paleontology, Johnson can hardly contain her excitement to lead the new program and to be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime discovery.
“I can’t wait to get out there. Everybody can’t wait to get out there,” Johnson said. “Everybody at both institutions is just chomping at the bit to get out there.”
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