More than two months after paleontologists claimed a dinosaur fossil site in Utah was seriously damaged by a backhoe, the Bureau of Land Management—which had ordered the construction work—has admitted that fossil trackways were indeed damaged by the heavy machinery and that the department made mistakes in not consulting scientists before dismantling a boardwalk there. But some say the BLM still hasn’t done enough to ensure this and other fossil sites will be adequately protected.
“I don’t like to be uncharitable to anybody, but if I were to describe the report in one word, I’d say: bland. And very generalized,” said Martin Lockley, one of the world’s top ichnologists who has studied the fossils at Mill Canyon.
Mill Canyon Track Site, discovered in 2009 and opened to the public in 2016, is the subject of ongoing research and features footprints of long-necked sauropods, ankylosaurs, and carnivorous theropods, as well as crocodilian slide traces and other preserved remnants of the early Cretaceous. A wooden boardwalk edged the large open fossil site, enabling visitors to view these trace fossils without walking on them. It was this boardwalk that BLM officials had decided to dismantle and replace with a more substantial structure—but few people knew of this plan before a backhoe arrived in late January, and experts who spoke to Gizmodo said that heavy vehicles should never have been permitted on the site.
“If I see that somebody has put a human print in the mud off the boardwalk, I get frantic,” Sue Sternberg, a Mill Canyon Track Site volunteer steward, told Gizmodo in early February. “So just the thought of this heavy machinery driving over the track area is so horrifying for those of us who know how fragile everything is there.”
At the time, the BLM claimed that the backhoe was “absolutely not used in the protected area.” But amid public outcry, officials said they would work with paleontologists to review the site before construction resumed. On March 30, the paleontological assessment, authored by BLM regional paleontologist Brent H. Breithaupt, was released. It finds that an unspecified number of tracks were fractured by vehicles. Damage could have been avoided, Breithaupt wrote, had a paleontologist familiar with the site been present or had they been asked to flag sensitive areas ahead of time.
Breithaupt concludes that, although a few instances of damage were due to natural causes (weather and erosion), fossil damage took place as a result of the construction in January. For example, fossils were damaged by vehicles when they drove over “track-bearing surfaces” as they dismantled and stacked portions of the boardwalk.
“Proximate to and along the northeastern side of the boardwalk an important crocodile slide track...is partially buried by sediment,” he wrote in the assessment. “Unfortunately, this trace was repeatedly driven over, as recent tire tracks indicate that this area was impacted by the backhoe and other vehicles.”
Breithaupt’s assessment claims that the overall damage is minor but encourages significant changes to any construction moving forward, including greater paleontological input and oversight before, during, and after any construction, along with better communication with the work crew. Breithaupt also recommended filling any open positions for BLM paleontologists.
Lee Shenton, president of the local chapter in Moab of the Utah Friends of Paleontology (UFOP), wrote in an email: “For Dr. Breithaupt, us UFOPers, and apparently many professional paleontologists, the root cause of the damage was the failure to involve a professional paleontologist with direct knowledge of the site, resulting in inadequate identification of the areas that were most at risk.”
Gizmodo asked Serena Baker, acting communications director at the BLM Utah, whether the agency has any immediate plans to hire a paleontologist. She responded: “The BLM is committed to hiring a paleontologist to be based in the Moab Field Office. The hiring process takes time and financial resources, but we are committed to filling the position, as soon as possible. We are working with a BLM Paleontologist who will come to Moab to conduct additional surveys, review the environmental assessment and provide on-site monitoring.”
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Shenton said that “a couple of people are already discounting Dr. Breithaupt’s report, probably because he is a BLM employee…so they perhaps view his report as biased. My view is that his report was candid and professional, giving fourteen pages of detailed assessments of the mistakes that were made and how to avoid repeats. Understandably, his assessment is somewhat uncomfortable for those who were conducting the project.”
Lockley expressed concerns about the fact that the BLM district paleontologist position—which would oversee Mill Canyon—continues to remain open. “If it was necessary before [to have a paleontologist], especially in an area like Moab where there’s huge, huge amounts of paleontological resources, why is it no longer necessary now?” he said.