In early September, the Interior Department implemented a long-awaited rule that will protect fossils from theft and loss on hundreds of public lands, including national park sites. Here are just a few of the places that are better off as a result.
The Department of the Interior implemented a rule in early September to protect the diverse trove of fossils at public lands across the country, including at national park sites. The National Park System contains some of the best preserved and earliest known life-forms on the planet — a wealth of specimens spanning roughly 2 billion years of geologic time. The new rule took more than 20 years to research, develop and implement, and was created in response to legislation passed by Congress over a decade ago. Designed to protect the remains of ancient plants and animals in a similar way to how the Endangered Species Act protects living things, it will help staff monitor the safety and health of fossils and prevent people from stealing them.
The need for this rule has been tremendous. Once a fossil is lost through theft or negligence, its unique scientific and cultural value can never be recovered. Now, National Park Service staff and other land managers across the Interior Department have clearer guidelines and enforcement measures to deter people from stealing these specimens, as well as a mandate to inventory and monitor the fossils in their care, so staff know where these resources exist and what measures to take to keep them in good condition.
Parks that will benefit from the new rule
Humans are one of the worst threats to fossils on public lands. According to National Park Service staff, the agency documents hundreds of incidents each year of people stealing or attempting to steal fossils — often enthusiasts who want rare items for their personal collections or recreational visitors who happen to see unusual objects in their travels and think nothing of slipping federally protected remains into their pockets. This persistent casual poaching results in incalculable losses to nationally significant specimens across the country.
Sadly, this is not a new problem. One of the worst examples of poaching resulted in an entire national park site being decommissioned in 1957 after all of its fossils were stolen. Fossil Cycad National Monument was created by President Warren G. Harding in 1922 to preserve a rare forest of Mesozoic plant specimens known as cycadeoids in South Dakota. People stole thousands of these 120-million-year-old fossils until, years later, none remained, and the Park Service could no longer justify maintaining the site as part of the National Park System. This cautionary tale is one that paleontologists and other park lovers never want to see repeated. Several park sites have had particular challenges with poaching and will benefit from the new rule:
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
President Theodore Roosevelt originally created Petrified Forest as a national monument in 1906, and it became the first national park site specifically designated to protect fossils. More than 200 million years ago, remnants of the trees at this park were buried so deeply in sediment that little oxygen could reach them, slowing their process of decay. The wood gradually crystallized into almost pure quartz, creating rainbows of color that dazzle visitors — and that many people find hard to resist stealing. Some poachers have claimed that bad luck plagued them as a result of their theft, and dozens of people attempt to return stolen fossils each year, though items can’t easily be returned to the places where they were originally taken from, creating headaches for park staff. Increased ranger patrols and the threat of fines might prove to be better deterrents than superstition alone.
Tule Springs National Monument, Nevada
This 22,000-acre site is just half an hour from Las Vegas but feels like a different world, with dense beds of Ice Age fossils, including American lions, Columbian mammoths and saber-tooth cats. Established in 2014, the vast site is a haven for paleontologists and other researchers, but there is not enough ranger capacity to monitor the large fossil-dense areas to prevent looting. I spent several months conducting my own research at the site in 2016 and saw for myself how a large collection of juvenile mammoth bones that had been intact several years earlier had been picked clean of all valuable items in my time between visits. This new mandate allowing park staff to devote more time to monitor and more thoroughly patrol the park could help cut down on such losses.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
This park, co-managed by the Park Service and the Oglala Lakota Indians of the Pine Ridge Reservation, is a wonderful example of how visitors have helped further science and research firsthand, though this positive collaboration was not always the norm. Badlands was once the site of long-term, systemic fossil poaching by commercial fossil dealers, and an extensive investigation of crimes at the park led to the first felony conviction for fossil theft in the country in 1995. Since that time, however, there have been multiple instances of remarkable discoveries by visitors, and the most significant fossils found in this park were due to visitors properly reporting their sightings. In 1997, two men noticed some exposed vertebrae near a picnic area, and their account eventually helped staff and volunteers uncover over 19,000 fossils over a period of 15 years, leading to new scientific understanding of the pig-like mammal archeotherium, and what the park ecosystem was like 34 million years ago. Another significant fossil, a rare intact skeletal structure of a saber-tooth carnivore, was found by a 7-year-old girl in 2010. Visitors can continue to learn from these findings. The new Interior Department rule will help park staff maintain this positive, collaborative environment and continue to deter those who would profit illegally from the park’s vast paleontological history.
Keeping up to date on America’s fossil history
The new Interior Department rule emphasizes the importance of inventorying and monitoring the country’s fossils. Before park staff can take action to protect a specimen, they need to know its presence, its condition and potential threats from erosion and other factors. These three sites showcase examples of recent scientifically significant discoveries where continued staff focus would help preserve the research in progress and could lead to additional noteworthy findings:
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
This world-famous park is home to numerous fossils, including 1.2-billion-year-old solidified mats of algae from the Precambrian Era known as stromatolites, some of the world’s oldest known life-forms . About 13 years ago, a caving enthusiast exploring the park made a newer discovery: a hidden cave that researchers believe humans had never previously set foot in. In 2010, a team of researchers discovered hundreds of mummified bats inside the cave dating from 3,000 to 34,000 years BCE. This collection of fossils was unprecedented in quantity, and many of the specimens were so well-preserved, they appeared as though they could fly away at any moment. Monitoring the many potential fossil sites at this vast park would help researchers continue to discover and preserve fossils like these and study their significance to science.
White Sands National Park, New Mexico
The unique landscape at this park encompasses dunes made up of a rare form of crystallized gypsum. During the Ice Age, the area was home to a large lake, which fed a thriving community of plants and animals. As the lake dried, it created ideal conditions to preserve the footprints of the creatures that once lived here. Any indications of life that are not actual remains, but patterns of movement and other evidence of past organisms, are known as “trace fossils.”
Twelve years ago, Park Service staff uncovered numerous such prints in the deposits of the lake, including Columbian mammoths, camels, dire wolves and saber-tooth cats; this discovery is now the largest collection of fossilized Ice Age footprints in the world. Four years ago, scientists also discovered the longest known set of human footprints in the world from this time period, tracks which stretch for nearly a mile. Discoveries like these are made possible through routine monitoring, and continued monitoring is essential to preserving and building on such significant findings.
George Washington Birthplace National Monument, Virginia
This park site was created to preserve the site of the first president’s first home (which now includes a replica of the original structure), as well as a memorial and a family cemetery. The site also contains significant fossil resources along the Potomac River. In 2020, a staff person taking a walk by the river discovered bones protruding from cliffs along the beach. The discovery turned out to be two nearly intact skulls from an extinct species of dolphin that existed here 15 million years ago. The scientifically significant findings show that surveying all kinds of sites, not just those already known to contain fossil specimens, can reveal surprising discoveries.
A crucial next step
The new Interior Department rule is a significant step forward in protecting our country’s fossils — which Park Service staff describe as a “non-renewable resource.” However, for the Park Service to properly protect these valuable resources, Congress must devote dedicated funding for park staff to patrol and monitor them. Ancient plants and animals simply cannot care for themselves.
Where to see some of the country’s most remarkable fossils
At least 283 national park sites contain fossils; of these, 18 were specifically designated to preserve significant specimens:
- Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Nebraska
- Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Alaska
- Channel Islands National Park, California
- Death Valley National Park, California
- Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado and Utah
- Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado
- Fossil Butte National Monument, Wyoming
- Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Arizona
- Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, Idaho
- John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon
- Joshua Tree National Park, California
- Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine
- Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
- Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, Nevada
- Waco Mammoth National Monument, Texas
- White Sands National Park, New Mexico
- Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, Alaska
- Zion National Park, Utah
Learn more about fossils around the country on the Park Service website.
About the author
Christa Cherava Senior Manager of Conservation Programs
Christa joined NPCA as a Government Affairs Department intern to gain exposure to natural resource policy. Today she is part of the Conservation Programs Department where she focuses on water issues—including coastal resiliency, sustainability, and also supports their Science Team.
- Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
- Badlands National Park
- Bering Land Bridge National Preserve
- Death Valley National Park
- Dinosaur National Monument
- Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
- George Washington Birthplace National Monument
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument
- John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument
- Petrified Forest National Park
- Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument
- Waco Mammoth National Monument
- White Sands National Park
- Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve