exposed dinosaur fossils
Margery Beck  /  AP
Barbara Beasley of the U.S. Forest Service points to exposed dinosaur fossils at a spot in the Oglala National Grasslands in Nebraska.
updated 8/6/2005 9:53:23 AM ET 2005-08-06T13:53:23

When three suspicious men were stopped on federal land in remote northwestern Nebraska in 2003, it didn't take the U.S. Forest Service long to figure out what they were doing.

The men had dug an 18-by-10-foot hole more than 2 feet deep, leaving the fossilized bones of a prehistoric rhinoceros exposed. Plaster used to take casts of the bones and excavating tools also were found.

The men were poaching fossils — a practice the Forest Service says has become rampant in recent years at Oglala National Grasslands.

Although the men in this case were arrested and eventually convicted in federal court, Forest Service paleontologist Barbara Beasley said most fossil poachers are never caught. There is only one federal law enforcement officer patrolling 1.1 million acres of federal grasslands in Nebraska and South Dakota, which makes it easy for those with even the most elementary knowledge of archaeology to take what they want.

In fact, the size of the hole left by the men suggested they had been digging for several days, Beasley said.

"Very seldom do we actually catch people in the act," she said. "We just got lucky that time."

While the problem is prevalent in all fossil-rich areas, from Colorado to Montana, Forest Service spokesman Dan Jiron said it is particularly bad in Nebraska because of the lack of natural barriers like mountains or thick brush that may hinder access.

Federal officials also previously did not make fossil-poaching a priority. This has changed in the last few years, Beasley said.

Beasley and others who conduct field work on federal lands are now undergoing training to be forest protection officers. That gives them the authority to investigate criminal cases but not to carry firearms.

Poachers include academics, those hoping to sell fossils on the black market and those who simply have their curiosity piqued by dinosaurs.

"It's like panning for gold," said Rusty Dersch, a Forest Service geologist. "The first time you find a few flakes, and you want to find a few more. It grows on you."

Evidence of poaching shows up nearly every week, Beasley said. Exposed holes and excavation tools are routinely found on the federally protected grasslands. Of more than 162 grassland areas identified in the 1990s as holding fossils, about 30 percent showed evidence of poaching, Beasley said.

Dinosaur fossils also turn up by the hundreds at fossil shows, in catalogs and on Internet auction sites.

"We have researchers and academic scientists who find our permitting process difficult and just decide to go around it," Beasley said. "But a lot of them just want to sell fossils."

The sales can be lucrative. Fossilized skulls of prehistoric animals sell can sell for thousands of dollars on eBay. In June, a saber-toothed cat skull sold for $32,312 at a Bonhams & Butterfields Natural History auction.

One of Beasley's duties is to keep up with the market price of fossils. That way when poachers are convicted, she can give prosecutors an idea of how much restitution offenders should pay, she said.

The three who were convicted in the 2003 case were ordered to pay $2,000 each. One of them, Tom Neumeyer of Sheboygan, Wis., a technical college welding teacher, declined to give a reason for wanting the dinosaur bones but said he has learned a lesson.

"I will never do this illegally again, I can tell you that," he said. "This has been the worst experience of my life."

That's just the kind of message the Forest Service wants to send.

"There's been more attention paid to poaching ... a lot of it because of the higher profile of fossils as the black market prices climb," Beasley said. "Our plan is to deter unauthorized collecting."

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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