The Dinosaur Fossil Wars

Across the American West, legal battles over dinosaur fossils are on the rise as amateur prospectors make major finds

Fossil prospector Ron Frithiof (with a mosasaur from his collections) was sued over a T. rex that he uncovered. "This whole experience," he says, "has been a disaster." (Aaron Huey)
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Frithiof's world caved in. After devoting years to Tinker, the prospector was suddenly in danger of going to jail for his efforts. "This whole experience has been a disaster," he says. "[With] all the lawyers' fees, not to mention the disruption of my life, it's cost me a fortune. And it's been very hard on my family. You gotta remember, I've never been in trouble in my life. Not even a traffic ticket." The disputed dinosaur, according to Frithiof's attorney Joe Ellingson, "wrecked my client's life."

Moreover, the fossil was consigned to limbo. As a result of byzantine twists in the litigation, Tinker's bones would soon be placed under another lawyer's supervision, stored in plastic tubs at an undisclosed location in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania—1,400 miles from the excavation site.

Across the American West and Great Plains, an intensifying conflict over the excavation of fossils—everything from a five-inch shark's tooth, which might sell for $50, to Frithiof's spectacular T. rex—has pitted amateur excavators against both the federal government and scientists. Scores, perhaps thousands, of prospectors—some operating as poachers on federally protected land—are conducting digs across hundreds of thousands of square miles from the Dakotas to Texas, Utah, Wyoming and Montana.

"In terms of digging for fossils, there are a lot more people" than there used to be, says Matthew Carrano, curator of dinosauria at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. "Twenty years ago, if you ran into a private or commercial fossil prospector in the field, it was one person or a couple of people. Now, you go to good fossil locations in, say, Wyoming, and you find quarrying operations with maybe 20 people working, and doing a professional job of excavating fossils."

Fueling the frenzy is skyrocketing market demand, as fossils, long relegated to the dusty realm of museum shelves, have entered the glitzy spheres of home décor and art. "There have always been private fossil collectors," says David Herskowitz of Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas. "The difference is, historically, a private fossil collector was wealthy. But today, interest in fossils has grabbed the attention of a broad swath of the population. That means a lot more people are collecting."

Who's buying these days? Just about anyone. With prices to suit virtually any budget, one can own an ancient remnant of life on earth: a botanical fossil, such as a fern, may cost as little as $20; a fossil snail, perhaps, may well go for $400.

The real action, however, is in the big vertebrates: dinosaurs that roamed the earth between 65 million and 220 million years ago. These are the specimens attracting the high rollers—serious collectors. Actors Harrison Ford and Nicolas Cage, for example, are rumored to have impressive collections.

The paleo-passion, however, extends far beyond celebrities. "The group who used to be serious fossil collectors—that's really grown," says money manager Charles Lieberman of Advisors Capital Management in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey. At his office, Lieberman displays several impressive specimens, including a three-foot-long Cretaceous herbivore, Psittacosaurus. "Since the book and movie Jurassic Park," he adds, "interest in fossil collecting has gone into overdrive, affecting demand and elevating prices."

The rise in prices is fueling the prospecting boom in the Great Plains and West—not necessarily because of a higher concentration of fossils there, but because the American West is one of the world's easiest places to find them. "If you had flown around the world 150 million years ago, the West wouldn't be more populated by dinosaurs than anywhere else," says the Smithsonian's Carrano. "But in the West, the rock layers laid down during the age of dinosaurs are currently exposed. It also helps that the landscape is dry, so there's not a lot of vegetation covering the rock. And it's erosive, so new rock is constantly being uncovered."

While fossils can now be found in stores from Moab to Manhattan, the most unusual (and valuable) specimens tend to show up at auction houses—or vanish into the shadowy world of private purchasers, some of whom are buying on the black market. At the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, for instance, it is possible to obtain illegally taken fossils. While Carrano does not attend the show, it's well-known, he says, that, "if you spend the week building trust with some of the sellers, you’ll get invited back to a hotel room and be shown exquisite fossil specimens that were probably taken illegally. We’re talking museum-grade specimens that are going to disappear into private collections."

About Donovan Webster
Donovan Webster

Donovan Webster is a journalist and author. He writes from Charlottesville, Virginia.

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