Paleontology and Public Lands—Bears Ears National Monument

Editor's note: This guest post comes to us from Mr. Robert Gay, a paleontologist who has conducted fieldwork within what is now Bears Ears National Monument. Bears Ears National Monument and others are currently under review by the Department of the Interior; to provide your own comment, you can do so at regulations.gov.

Bears Ears National Monument (BENM), established by President Barack Obama in late 2016, encompasses 1.3 million acres of rolling sage plains, deep sandstone canyons, soaring mountain slopes, high, grassy meadows, and windswept desert vistas. This landscape has recently been at the center of a political controversy involving five Native American tribes, San Juan County elected officials, the Utah congressional delegation, and the White House.

On June 10th of 2017, under direction from President Trump (Executive Order 13792), Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke recommended that BENM be reduced in size in order to better fit with what the current administration views as the original scope and intent of the Antiquities Act of 1906 (the congressional authority under which President Obama designated BENM). Although the secretary does not specifically lay out how these boundaries should be adjusted, his interim report  makes mention of separate areas of protection. From a paleontological perspective, however, the most concerning part of this interim report is what isn’t there.


The Permian through Triassic rocks exposed at BENM are not only beautiful but also tell the story of life before and after the Earth's largest mass extinction.

As I have detailed elsewhere, it was no small effort on the part of me and the society, among others, to get paleontological resources included in the proclamation which established Bears Ears National Monument. It involved countless back-and-forth exchanges with local officials, conservation groups, and even frantic, last-minute trips to Bluff and Washington D.C. In the end, though, paleontological resources within what is now BENM were explicitly protected.



The paleontological resources in the Bears Ears area are among the richest and most significant in the United States, and protection of this area will provide important opportunities for further archaeological and paleontological study. Many sites, such as Arch Canyon, are teeming with fossils, and research conducted in the Bears Ears area is revealing new insights into the transition of vertebrate life from reptiles to mammals and from sea to land. Numerous ray-finned fish fossils from the Permian Period have been discovered, along with other late Paleozoic Era fossils, including giant amphibians, synapsid reptiles, and important plant fossils. Fossilized traces of marine and aquatic creatures such as clams, crayfish, fish, and aquatic reptiles have been found in Indian Creek's Chinle Formation, dating to the Triassic Period, and phytosaur and dinosaur fossils from the same period have been found along Comb Ridge. Paleontologists have identified new species of plant-eating crocodile-like reptiles and mass graves of lumbering sauropods, along with metoposaurus, crocodiles, and other dinosaur fossils. Fossilized trackways of early tetrapods can be seen in the Valley of the Gods and in Indian Creek, where paleontologists have also discovered exceptional examples of fossilized ferns, horsetails, and cycads. The Chinle Formation and the Wingate, Kayenta, and Navajo Formations above it provide one of the best continuous rock records of the Triassic-Jurassic transition in the world, crucial to understanding how dinosaurs dominated terrestrial ecosystems and how our mammalian ancestors evolved. In Pleistocene Epoch sediments, scientists have found traces of mammoths, short-faced bears, ground sloths, primates, and camels.


These words encompass vast areas of land where these discoveries have been made within what is BENM and I have been exceptionally fortunate to have worked in some of these locations. My work specifically has focused on the Triassic-Jurassic transition mentioned above in the southern portion of BENM, though I have also been part of the work at Indian Creek as well. The eastern edge of the Monument Upwarp has exposed vast swaths of Triassic and Jurassic-aged rocks that have only been sporadically investigated until our team began conducting fieldwork in 2014. Within days of beginning our survey we found what has turned out to be the richest Triassic microvertebrate site ever discovered in Utah, which has yielded the first Utah specimens of Crosbysaurus, as well as numerous other animals poorly known from the state. New and significant localities continue to be discovered every year, and we are just barely starting to scratch through the surface of what is exposed in the Chinle Formation.


Ethan Cowgill and Michelle Bowen collect 220 million-year-old fossil teeth from the most productive microvertebrate site from the Triassic of Utah, now protected in BENM.

Last year I led a team of high school students to the western edge of what is now BENM and they discovered the only known Triassic bonebed from Utah’s Chinle Formation. Exposed over a 120 square meter area, this bone bed has both articulated and disarticulated remains of many individuals. Most significantly in regards to the current discussion about the boundaries of BENM is that the main locality lies scant meters outside of the monument boundaries. This nationally significant locality exists almost completely without any enhanced protection that monument status affords.

The fact that the secretary did not explicitly mention paleontology in his interim report is troubling. Zinke spends a large portion of his report discussing tribal affiliations and protections; rightfully so, as BENM protects an amazing number and variety of ancestral sites and traditional collection areas. The secretary also rightly points out that the president’s authority, under the Antiquities Act, allows land to be set aside for scientific reasons as well. What the secretary’s interim report does not do, however, is draw the connection between landscape, science (in this case paleontology), and the “smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” We can already show that in one case the boundary should be extended, not shrunk, to encapsulate the Triassic bonebed from western BENM; with a boundary cutting through the deposit and excluding the most productive and significant portion of the site, it clearly does not meet the requirements of the Act. Additionally, my colleagues and I are engaged in active field research and are finding, more and more, that significant fossil resources exist across the area designated by President Obama. From the Valley of the Gods to Indian Creek, from Comb Ridge to White Canyon, nationally significant fossil abound in this high desert landscape. The president moved to protect fossils in his proclamation, and if these deposits are ubiquitous across the monument then, at a minimum, BENM cannot be shrunk. If it does not meet the requirement for “smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected,” it is only because the boundaries should be expanded to include known fossil resources. Just as much as the cultural remains, these are the objects to be protected.

Posted: 7/7/2017 12:13:41 PM by andyfarkeadmin | with 0 comments
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