What Shrinking Fossil-Rich National Monuments Means for Science

This dinosaur footprint was found in sandstone at Dinosaur Track at Hackberry Canyon in Grand Staircase-Escalante National. A proclamation recently signed by President Trump would reduce the protected area by half. (RGB Ventures / SuperStock)

This dinosaur footprint was found in sandstone at Dinosaur Track at Hackberry Canyon in Grand Staircase-Escalante National. A proclamation recently signed by President Trump would reduce the protected area by half. (RGB Ventures / SuperStock)

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump announced the dramatic rollback of protections for roughly two million acres of land in national monuments of southern Utah, stating that the creation of these parks “lock[s] up hundreds of millions of acres of land and water under strict government control." Speaking from the state’s capitol in Salt Lake City, Trump then signed two proclamations. One slashed the 1.35 million-acres that comprise Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent, while another cut the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument nearly in half.

The move was met with immediate pushback from Native American groups, wildlife conservation organizations, and even the outdoor supplier Patagonia, many of whom announced their intentions to file lawsuits. Yet joining this flurry of suits was one organization that many may not have expected: the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), a scientific organization that comprises more than 2,300 members from universities and scientific institutions around the world. What was a society that describes itself as “organized exclusively for educational and scientific purposes” doing suing the federal government?

Both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase were created—at least in part—on the grounds of paleontological importance. In just the last decade, researchers in Grand Staircase have found and described more than 25 new taxa that were totally new to science—including Utahceratops and Kosmoceratops, the unusual relatives of the frill-faced Triceratops. "Grand Staircase especially is jaw-droppingly important in vertebrate paleontology,” says David Polly, paleontologist at Indiana University Bloomington and president of SVP. “It's completely transformed the way we think about [not only] the Late Cretaceous but other parts of the Mesozoic."

Though Bears Ears is a newer monument, created in 2016 by then-President Barack Obama, it's already proving to have great scientific potential. Earlier this year researchers announced the discovery of Utah's only known Pravusuchus hortus, an ancient crocodile-like marine reptile, within its bounds. The monument captures an "incredible record" of dinosaurs transitioning from "wimpy little nothing components of the ecosystems to being these huge, world-beating mega important parts of the global ecosystem," says Robert Gay, a vertebrate paleontologist who conducts research in association with the Museums of Western Colorado.

Countless more finds surely reside within both monuments' original bounds. But researchers fear that without the current federal protections, they may be in danger of disappearing. "These things have been lying in the ground for 75 million years, and there aren't anymore being created. If we lose the resource, it's gone forever—period. It's gone," says Robin O'Keefe, a paleontologist at Marshall University who conducts research in Grand Staircase. "We can get coal other places; we can't get these fossils anywhere else."

Smithsonian.com spoke with five scientists about how loss of this "strict government control" could harm not only conservation and paleontology research—but the nation’s history and legacy itself.

How Monument Status Protects Landscapes

The idea of designating sites as national monuments dates back to the 1906 Antiquities Act, which empowered the president to protect these sites for public use. Today, national monument status comes with far more than a pretty plaque: It both helps beef up protections against fossil looting and prioritizes scientific activities. The new proclamations would convert vast swaths of land to Federal multi-use land, bringing the potential for natural resource extraction—including oil and gas—and other activities that could impact the ancient relics still hidden within the sweeping landscape.

The importance of making these sites accessible to scientists goes beyond the work of a few people conducting research in the site, says Andrew Farke, a paleontologist with the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology. "I think a lot of times, it's pitted as scientists versus everyone else, or extreme conservationists versus everyone else," he says. "When you have a loss of protection for fossils, it's not just a loss for science. It's a loss for all Americans. This is part of our country's story; this is part of our planet's story."

Bears Ears and Grand Staircase were both, at least in part, created in recognition of their potential to help researchers better understand the geologic past. That means that currently, scientists are given priority in the monument bounds. This is far from the case on general public land, explains O'Keefe. Land managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management is technically available for all to use—but when natural resource extraction companies secure a permit for a particular site, "the fences go up, the roads go in and we [the scientists] no longer really have access," says O'Keefe.

Even if he secures the necessary permits, he adds, it's no guarantee that he will be able to gain access. He recounts several times that he was threatened by ranchers whose cattle were grazing in the region of interest. "We can go out there, but I don't want to take my life in my hands to do my job," says O'keefe.

In most cases, monuments also have the funding for more staff members, including park rangers and even on-site scientists. This means more eyes on the ground to prevent looting by private collectors and fossil hunters—"which exist and are rapacious," says O'Keefe. One of the primary motivating factors for the creation of Bears Ears was the rallying of five Native American groups—who are all now part of a lawsuit for returned protections—to prevent the pillaging of the region's vast cultural and archaeological sites.

That concern also extends to scientifically valuable fossils. "The first-ever discovery of Pravusuchus [in Utah] was by a looter," says Gay, who has done extensive work in the region of Bears Ears. The looter, a past volunteer at a southwestern Natural History Museum, found and removed the skull of the crocodile-esque creature sometime in the 1990s, which prevented scientists from ID-ing the specimen. In 2008, the individual decided to return the skull, which allowed for the first documentation of these creatures in Utah, presented this year at SVP's annual meeting.

But it's likely not all similar stories have such a happy end. As Gay says: "Who knows what sort of sites like this looted site are still out there?"

Monument status also establishes additional funding streams to support and promote scientific research within its boundaries, everything from surveying to logistical support like helicopter lifts. Gay can attest to the impacts of this funding. He worked in an area within Bears Ears before it gained monument status. "Almost as soon as the monument was proclaimed, I was informed that there was money available to help the BLM better understand and manage the resources there," he says. Within a few months, he applied and received a grant of $25,000 to work at Bears Ears.

At Grand Staircase, the funding also supports an on-site paleontologist, who is the force behind surveying the landscape and reaching out to specialists to establish collaborations and deeper research. "Having that person in place there for the monument lands, means that things happen much more smoothly, much more quickly," says Farke. "You have someone that's really overseeing just that little parcel of field work, versus having to oversee all of the federal lands in Utah."

Read the full story at Smithsonian.com