‘Once-in-100-year opportunity’: Dino dig site could lead to years of paleontological finds in Moffat County
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correctly identify the science as paleontology and to clarify a quote.
Moffat County could have a decades-long paleontological project on its hands, according to professor Liz Johnson, curator of paleontology and science faculty at Colorado Northwestern Community College. And, Johnson believes, it’s entirely possible the dig leads to a dinosaur destination in Moffat County similar to the one in Jensen, Utah.
“We have fossils coming in, (and) we have a new dig site, which is legitimately like a few miles from Dinosaur National Monument on the border on the Colorado side,” Johnson said in an update on the paleontology in Moffat County to the county’s tourism board on Wednesday. “So what’s really cool about this particular dig site is it is in a rare location geologically speaking, so really cool is that it’s rare there, and we have some animals that are really flipping big.”
Johnson said that they’ve already found a rib that is estimated to be 9 feet long. That bone could potentially be from a Brachiosaurus, a long-necked dinosaur that could grow upwards of six stories tall.
“It is a bone bed. It is so many bones put together,” Johnson said. “We are looking at Stegosaurus in there as well, the Colorado state fossil. We are looking at meat-eater bones as well particularly small ones with awesome claws. So those are cute little babies. We’re really excited about that.”
Johnson legally could not reveal where the particular site is located, but it is located on public grounds near Dinosaur National Monument. She added that because of the size of the bones that have been found, it is possible that the dig can take upwards of 10 or 15 years. However, recreational or tourism opportunities could arise amid the project, she said.
“It has the potential of getting a wall like Dinosaur National Monument wall (on the Utah side of the monument), which is why it has implications — that if you have a Utah quarry, you could eventually have a Colorado quarry that unites both sides of both states, giving you options in terms of what that could look like from a visitation standpoint,” she said. “So that’s kind of what we’re doing from a field perspective.”
Students at CNCC who take paleontology courses have done legwork in the site’s dig. Twenty students took the course this summer, allowing for two different groups to go out to the site to dig. Those students and other diggers camp out at the site since it is so remote, and many of them travel from various states to take the class.
The repository itself is a federal entity, meaning it is covered by the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Interior and the Department of Defense and not CNCC. CNCC hosts the repository and offers the classes on the academic side, but actual ownership of the bones goes to the BLM since they were discovered on public lands. If bones are found on private property, the property owner owns the bones.
CNCC and CNFM are authorized to excavate on BLM land because they have a BLM paleontological excavation permit, as required by law, a representative for the college clarified. Paleontological resources on federal lands are protected by the Paleontological Resources Act.
“We did a preliminary base,” Johnson said. “We went into the hill, just a meter and about the length of (four tables). We removed a few things right now because these big bones are still going into the hill. Think of it like pick-up sticks — you can’t pick up one without removing a lot at once. How can I get it all out in one piece? And right now, it’s so dense. We have what we call a winter jacket on it. We put plaster on top of it, we put tarps, and then we covered it all back up, so that then it will be protected when we get back the next year. And so we can figure out the best way to remove things.”
Though it is completely legal to find and visit the dig site because it is on public lands, it is still illegal to remove bones from vertebrate animals from those sites. The dig site isn’t far from Maybell, which could open tourism — or at the very least, Johnson said, patronage from paleontologists — in the small Moffat County community.
“This is going to be a long-term dig site,” Johnson said. “And what it could mean is that if it turns into a wall — this is a once in 100-year opportunity, right? Let’s put it this way. There’s only one wall in the world.”
CNCC also hosts Walter, a duck-billed dinosaur skeleton that’s about 80% complete.
“It looks like we will be pretty close here soon to identify and or name a new species and genus (of dinosaur),” Johnson said. “I found these little bumps that look like warts on the nose, and I was pulling my hair out because I was prepping them underneath the microscope. So I called up the expert, who we work with in North Carolina, and I said, ‘I’m pissed off at this piece right now. I want you to give me a picture of how this works.’ And then once I sent the picture, he went ballistic, in a good way. So he’s excited about it.”
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