Yellowstone Paleo Survey: Paleontological Resource Management

Paleontological Resource Management

National Park Service Policy

Fossils are non-renewable resources that require
specific actions for appropriate management. Paleontological resource management on federal lands has gained considerable attention over the past decade, including recognition as an independent discipline by the scientific community and land management agencies. Within the National Park Service, the Paleontological Resources Management Program received initial direction through the Natural Resources Management Guidelines (NPS-77). The NPS program objectives for paleontological resources management call on the park to:

• identify paleontological resources within NPS units;

• evaluate the significance of those resources;

• adequately protect significant resources so that their historical value is not degraded; and

• use research to support management objectives.

National Park Service Management Policies state that "Management actions will be taken to prevent illegal collecting [of fossil resources] and may be taken to prevent damage from natural processes such as erosion. Protection may include construction of shelters over specimens for interpretation in situ, stabilization in the field or collection, preparation, and placement of specimens in museum collections. The localities and geologic setting of specimens will be adequately documented when specimens are collected…Protection may also include, where necessary, the salvage collection of threatened specimens that are scientifically significant."

Specific management actions that are recommended in NPS-77 for paleontological sites include:

• Monitoring: Periodic re-examination of a known fossil locality to assess stability and need for management action. Photodocumentation is essential to monitor changes.

Cyclic Prospecting: In high erosion areas, periodic surveys should be undertaken to check for the appearance of new fossil material at the surface.

• Stabilization/Reburial: If excavation of fossil material is not recommended or feasible at a particular time, reburial may be utilized as an interim measure. Reburial can assist in slowing down erosion and the destruction of fossil material. Stabilization of a fossil can be accomplished through a wide range of paleontological techniques and methodologies.

• Excavation: The removal and collection of a fossil from a rock unit may be the appropriate management action in many cases. Depending upon the scientific significance, immediate threats or other variables, the careful collection of a fossil specimen may be warranted. Appropriate collecting permits must be secured with all collections.

• Closure: A fossil locality may be better managed through the closure of the local area. Closed areas may be completely withdrawn from public use or restricted to ranger-led activities or research purposes.

Patrols: Significant fossil sites may require periodic checks by park staff or patrol rangers. Patrols may be important in preventing or reducing theft and vandalism.

Management of paleontological resources should be distinguished from the management of archeological resources. Paleontological resources are typically recognized as natural resources and should be managed accordingly. The Archeological Resources Protection Act (1979) and the NPS Cultural Resources Management Guidelines (NPS-28) provide guidance for cases when paleontological specimens occur in an archeological context.

Except for a few parks, fossils have often been a forgotten resource within the NPS. Limited funding and staff and insufficient legislation have left fossils to fend for themselves. The lack of basic data involving significance, distribution, threats, and research needs is not sound management.

Obtaining Baseline Data

Recommended Management Actions

• Assign one staff member from each district to coordinate paleontological resource management and research.

• Continue inventory and monitoring of the park's fossil resources.

• Identify threats to paleontological resources.

• Adopt recommended RMP project statements for paleontological resources.

• Provide paleontological resource management training at the park level or by participation in the NPS Paleontological Resource Management Training, which is offered every two years.

The inventory and monitoring of paleontological resources serves as the foundation of any paleontological resource management program. Without the baseline data available from a paleontological survey, any further actions or management decisions would be based upon insufficient information.

During the summer of 1996, a field team of paleontologists and students initiated a paleontological survey to identify and document the geographic and stratigraphic distribution of fossils in the park. More than 20 stratigraphic units have been identified that possess significant paleontological resources. Fossils have been identified across the entire northern portion of the park, within the Absaroka Range along the eastern side, and in the Snake River area in the south. To map the fossil localities more precisely, GPS measurements were obtained at several sites. This data will be incorporated into the park's GIS system.

To complete the survey, the following information is needed:

• Geographic data on fossil localities, including topographic coordinates, UTMs, the geographic extent of the locality, maps, GPS measurements, etc.

• Stratigraphic data related to the geology of the localities, including the formations or subunits and the age of the units.

• Paleontological data related to the identification of paleotaxa present at the localities.

• Geologic data related to the lithology or the depositional environment of the fossiliferous units.

All fossil localities should be documented using both ground and aerial photos wherever possible. Ground photos should include close-up details showing the fossils, sedimentary structures, and general setting of the locality. Aerial photos should be at a scale appropriate to the physical characteristics of the locality.

Natural erosion is a principle threat to all paleontological resources. Fossils exposed at the surface are subjected to physical and chemical forces that can often be destructive. Continued inventory and monitoring of fossil areas subject to significant erosion is recommended.

Construction and visitor use may cause erosion, although in some cases these activities may also expose additional fossil resources. In 1994, the East Entrance road construction was altered slightly because of a significant fossil plant discovery. Fossil sycamore leaves from this site were well-preserved and extremely large in size. Information gained from this site supports research into the Eocene volcanic deposition and climate history.

Two specific project statements related to paleontological resources were drafted by Santucci in 1996 and recommended to replace the general and outdated project statement in the currently approved Yellowstone Resource Management Plan (Appendix C). The first statement pertains to the inventory and photo-documentation of Yellowstone's paleontological resources. The second project statement addresses the issues associated with paleontological resource protection.

Fossil Resource Protection

The problem of human damage to Yellowstone's fossil forests was recognized early in the park's history. "Although easily reached by a fairly good wagon road, which forms the mail route to the little mining camp of Cooke, Montana, the locality is seldom visited, save by those vandals who have carted away its treasures by the wagon load to be shipped to the dealer in `specimens'," Walter Weed reported in a 1892 issue of the Columbia College, School of Mines Quarterly. "When first discovered in 1878 the beds of breccia contained great quantities of agate, amethyst and chalcedony, but these minerals are now rarely seen, having been carried away by visitors in search of `specimens'. In recent years even the fossil trees themselves have been taken away when small enough to be readily transported."

An iron fence was placed around the petrified tree in the Tower area in 1907. There were originally two standing petrified trees in this area. One was dismantled by souvenir hunters and the enclosure was designed to protect the other standing tree.

A principal reason for adding land outside the original northwest park boundary was to protect the Gallatin fossil forest, which was pillaged by specimen hunters after the opening of the Gallatin River road in 1911 provided access to the fossil-rich exposures. But the establishment of a ranger station in that corner of the park did little to stop the theft. One of the first actions taken by park management to reduce the illegal removal of fossils was the closure of the public campground at the mouth of Specimen Creek. Later the ranger station was also removed. Then in the 1960s, returning the "addition" to the U.S. Forest Services was seriously considered as a way to get rid of the problem (Aubrey Haines, pers. commun., 1996).

Recommendations for Fossil Protection

• Assess the commercial value of the petrified wood and other paleontological resources of Yellowstone.

• Review park records over the past decade related to paleontological theft or vandalism.

• Provide paleontological resource protection training for staff working in park areas with fossiliferous exposures.

• Establish interagency cooperative efforts to protect fossils on the federal lands in the Yellowstone area.

• Conduct undercover investigations involving local rock shops, fossil dealers, and souvenir stores for possession of Yellowstone fossils.

In his 1935 report, "Petrified Sequoia Trees in the Northwest Corner of Yellowstone National Park," Dr.Paul A. Young concluded, "May the Officials of Yellowstone National Park please guard these secrets until they can adequately protect the Sequoias."

Michael Arct (Loma Linda University), who has studied the Yellowstone petrified forests for 18 years, has observed human impacts on the fossil trees in the Gallatin portion of the park (Arct, pers. commun., 1996).

Discussions with Dr. Roger D. Hoggan, Chairman of the Department of Natural Sciences at Rick's College in Rexburg, Idaho, whose students visit the Gallatin Petrified Forest as part of their studies, indicated the school's commitment to resource protection during field trips. Environmental ethics is part of the curriculum, the faculty are familiar with Yellowstone's natural resource policies, and students are made aware that collection of any natural features is prohibited. Dr. Hoggan would also like to see student internship opportunities at Yellowstone similar to those which have been used for paleontological resources projects at Badlands and Petrified Forest National Parks. Students could assist in inventorying Yellowstone fossil resources by mapping and photodocumenting localities, obtaining baseline data that is essential for paleontological resource management.

The increasing public interest in fossils and corresponding escalation in the commercial fossil market create additional pressures in managing park fossils. Although the current baseline data is insufficient to assess paleontological theft and vandalism in Yellowstone, recent investigations have demonstrated that both casual and commercial illegal collecting is occurring in NPS areas. Fossiliferous exposures of the Madison Group in the Pebble Creek campground are easily accessible and should be monitored for visitor impacts. Park researchers need to be involved in an effort to determine the level of fossil theft. David A. Kubichek, Assistant U.S. Attorney, a dynamic speaker with experience in paleontological resource theft cases, would be effective in a training program on paleontological resource investigations and could be consulted if a fossil theft case occurs in the park.