When the Trump administration proposed shrinking the protected status of Bears Ears National Monument, an important stretch of federally-owned land in Utah, many people were deeply concerned about the potential loss of cultural, historical, environmental and social resources.
Some of those resources are hundreds, thousands or even millions of years old — as in the case of a treasure trove of triassic-era fossils discovered last year in an area of the site that’s no longer protected. While fossils might seem like literal old news, such finds are critically important for understanding the world, and rescinding protections endangers them.
In fact, including paleontological resources under the designation in the first place was a bit of a fight.
Robert Gay, the researcher who announced the most recent find, has spent considerable time in and around Bears Ears, and he’s been a longtime advocate for the park’s natural resources. This area, Gay argues, is unique: It includes a broad scope of fossils representing many different eras, with very exposed formations that allow us an immediate visual history of the region. He claims that it’s urgent to protect these rare sites because there’s so much more to discover.
Paleontology, of course, is only one discipline that has scientists eager to see Bears Ears protected. And native communities also want to be assured that their historic cultural resources will be respected. The news that the administration planned to move ahead with shrinking the monument — in spite of considerable outcry — highlighted a lack of interest in responding to public concern, let alone evidence-based science.
Paleontological resources could be used to make a compelling argument for extending monument protections in a move that would benefit not just researchers working on those sites, but also other communities who want to see a site remain under protection.
After all, losing those protections has real consequences. Gay identified at least one significant fossil that was removed from the site by amateurs before it was subject to federal protections. Those sorts of incidents would be less likely in a site that enjoys explicit federal oversight. This kind of looting — and, in some cases, vandalism – is a problem on public lands as is.
While fossils on public land are technically protected – they can’t be collected without a permit — failure to explicitly protect these formations can send a clear message. And because there’s no mandate to preserve fossil beds, that means other uses, like recreational off-road vehicles, can pose a major risk.
The decision to shrink the boundaries of Bears Ears also opened up new territory to mining claims — something firms jumped on right away to get ahead of the competition. Mining would be devastating for fossil fields, as it would destroy opportunities to view resources in situ, while pulverizing fossils with mining equipment – especially since there’s no incentive to carefully identify and preserve geological resources.
The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is among the organizations and entities joining forces to demand that the status of Bears Ears be reconsidered. The organization argues that Donald Trump lacked the authority to shrink the boundaries of the site, and the redrawn map cuts out areas of significant scientific value – including records of mass extinction events and key moments in evolution.
Speak out to protect Bears Ears by signing this Care2 petition.
Photo credit: Bob Wick/BLM