Bad Advice! Don’t go Fossil Hunting Here!

Back in December, I had posted a blog post entitled “Best Day Ever”.  And it was!  My 8-year old son and I had heard about a place to walk along the shores of the Missouri River, where you could find fossils.  We tried it one weekend morning, and had a blast!  For a couple of hours poking around the shoreline, we found an ancient fish vertebrae, a Mosasaur vertebrae, and a “tube worm” fossil.  Coupled with some birding we did that afternoon, and that wonderful sunny December day was indeed one of my “best days ever”.

Sounds great, right? You bet!!  However, it seems in life there are no “best days ever” without some reciprocal thing happening to balance it out.  As I’ve just learned, you CANNOT actually disturb or pick up a fossil in this location!  Thanks to my “Best Day Ever” blog post, I just had a little sit down chat with a ranger from the Corps of Engineers.  Turns out the spot my son and I were at is Corps of Engineers land, and you are NOT allowed to collect fossils here. 

The spot…along the Missouri River, by the Platte-Winner bridge in South Dakota on the west side of the Missouri River.  I have my own thoughts about this topic, but for once, I’ll listen to the side of me responsible for self-censorship and won’t provide them here.  Suffice it to say that if you try to fossil hunt in this area, if you’re on Corps of Engineer lands, it’s probably illegal.  And if  you do it, you may get a visit like I just did.

The one great difficulty though…there are NOT signs in this area that point this out.  The guy told me that Federal lands each have different rules, depending on who is managing it.  In this area, there’s a mix of Federal land management types, and there are NO signs that warn you against fossil hunting, or where one management type starts, and another begins.

Think the only “safe” thing to do is to avoid fossil hunting here altogether.  Or you too may get a “visit”.    To avoid any more trouble…that’s the last I’ll ever say on the topic out here.

5 Responses to Bad Advice! Don’t go Fossil Hunting Here!

  1. I guess it is probably a good idea not to be picking up things we find laying on the ground! As a bird artist (wooden bird scupltor), I find it extremely hard to avoid picking up the pretty feather, or even a fresh kill, of some bird I am carving or hope to carve in the future. A fellow carver told me one time that you can never have enough reference material. I understand the rules about feathers; after all what proof do you have that you didn’t shoot that migratory bird (unless it was taken under your license)? It is my understanding that Starlings and English Sparrows can be taken, but so far I have been able to risist the urge to carve these two birds. I have seen several carvings of each in various competitions, but can’t believe that there is any serious money to be made in carving them. I’ll just have to be content with good photos in birding magazines and access to study skins in research museums, where I can take photos and get measurements of beaks, tarsi, “toes” as well as flight feather lengths without getting the feds on me. In that regard, Terry, I really do appreciate good bird photo sites like yours, especially if the photos include some natural habitat.

    Back to fossils. In my previous life (my how time flies after retirement) as a university biology professor in Maryland, I taught a course entitled “Natural History of the Chesapeake Bay” and after discussing the past geological history of the Bay, I would take the students on a field trip to a good beach below some imposing soft cliffs, where at low tide, especially after a good storm, it is possible to find vaious shark teeth, large fish bone fossils, occasional bryozoans, and such. This place is a county park, and well known as a place to find some spectacular fossils. even researchers from the Smithsonian have found interesting fossils. Interestingly, down the beach at the south end of the park, is a nuclear energy reactor. Other than a fence extending out into the water with a warning sign on it, there is no warning about who is in charge of the land or beach and where their jurisdiction begins.

    No need to post a reply, I’ll honor your statement about not saying any more about collecting fossils!

  2. If it was meant to be left untouched, some agency should have posted it all over the place! Wonder if there were cigarette butts in among the fossils too–seems there are so many gaps and what-ifs, no one knows anything for sure anymore. Hope you got to keep the fossils you collected. Be interesting to see if signs will be up in a short timely period now. I’d keep track of that and see what the fallout from your innocent activity teaching your kid to appreciate ancient natural relics winds up being.

  3. A few years ago, when I was in New Mexico, I followed a map to an ancient native people’s artifact site. It was unattended, and there were no cameras or other recording devices, but there were several signs saying collection of artifacts was forbidden. You couldn’t miss the signs. You also couldn’t miss the artifacts.

    Since there were so many shards of pottery, pieces of tools, etc., plainly visible, I guessed that people do a good job of honoring the signs and respecting the site. Or else these artifacts weren’t really that valuable.

    I hope it was the former.

  4. I just wish there WERE signs at this location! I don’t recall seeing any signs that noted when you crossed from one type of land management to another, and there certainly weren’t any signs that said you couldn’t pick up a fossil you’d found.

    I know ignorance of the “law” isn’t the best excuse, but when you and your son are just walking along a river on public land, where no rules are posted, it never occurred to me that there might be an issue.

  5. The general rule is that you cannot collect fossils of vertibrate animals from government land. You can collect them from private land. Out here in the west, most of the land is federally owned and therefore restricted. There are some exceptions for “scientific study”, etc, but what that entails or the permits required are unclear. So… keeping with the collection of worms, clams shells, snails and the like is a good rule. Or, if you really want to get good fossils legally, go to a commercial fossil dig. We have quite a few such fish fossils and the cost of going to the commercial facility is well worth avoiding the “visit”. I also bought several from the local community college when they were cleaning out their excess. I was sure to get and save the receipt in case there was a question. When I was young and irresponsible I remember coming upon a good sized outcropping in the Southern Nevada desert that had petroglyphs. There was a sign that said something to the effect of don’t touch the cliff, don’t take the rocks, don’t take the plants, don’t take the dirt… So, I took the sign. Stupid, irresponsible, and illegal. Don’t do that. It was 50 yrs ago so I am sure the statute of limitations has expired, but still…. a dumb kid thing to do. Respect the rules and out children will have things like this to find and leave in place.

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