Paleontologists and locals familiar with a fossil site in Moab, Utah claim that a backhoe drove over dinosaur footprints and other animal trackways, damaging or destroying them. The Utah Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for protecting Mill Canyon Track Site, has said that its recent dismantling of a wooden boardwalk there caused no damage to fossils.
According to sources who spoke to Gizmodo, the early Cretaceous Period fossils at Mill Canyon are delicate and often not apparent to the naked eye, which would make it easy for someone to damage them unintentionally. A wooden boardwalk, now dismantled, was constructed at the site ahead of its public opening in 2016, to allow visitors to view the fossils without stepping on them. An October 2021 proposal from the Bureau of Land Management’s Moab Field Office claimed that “the wooden boardwalk is warping and presents a serious trip hazard” and that a new boardwalk would be required.
“If I see that somebody has put a human print in the mud off the boardwalk, I get frantic,” Sue Sternberg, a Mill Canyon Track Site volunteer steward since 2013, told Gizmodo by phone. “So just the thought of this heavy machinery driving over the track area is so horrifying for those of us who know how fragile everything is there.”
Paleoartist Brian Engh, hired by former Utah Bureau of Land Management paleontologist Rebecca Hunt-Foster to do the artwork for the signage along the boardwalk, emphasized the importance of this site. Among the diverse footprints, there are “even croc belly slides and resting traces,” Engh told Gizmodo in an email.
“There is a running dromaeosaur,” he added, “a turtle tromping through the mud, a sauropod slipping on the shoreline, and even a spot where a sauropod stepped right into the middle of the largest theropod track on the site, indicating that the shoreline records a relatively short period of time as the lakeshore was exposed by a dropping water line.”
In a statement this week, the Utah BLM said it is “committed to balancing resource protection and public access to the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite, and other public lands managed by the Moab Field Office, which continue to receive high visitation. The Moab Field Office is working to improve safe public access with an updated boardwalk that is designed to protect the natural resources of this site. During that effort, heavy equipment is on location, but it is absolutely not used in the protected area.”
Last week, Utah resident and investment banker Jeremy Roberts was looking online for recent paleontological news. The subject is a passion of his 14-year-old son, who was instrumental in proposing the first official Utah state dinosaur and is involved in the Utahraptor State Park to be opened in 2023. Roberts was puzzled to see a notice on the BLM website proposing the installation of a new boardwalk framing Mill Canyon Track Site.
The existing boardwalk, built with guidance from paleontologists, was made of wood. This proposal intended to replace wood with steel and concrete, a design that Roberts’ son immediately recognized would be too heavy for the fragile environment of the tracks and the area around them. So Roberts contacted the BLM the next day. When they didn’t respond, he said he reached out to paleontologists familiar with Mill Canyon. They tried to contact the BLM and, he said, didn’t get a response either. This prompted him to go out to visit the site. At that time, he said, he didn’t think any construction had begun, but when he arrived, he saw that the boardwalk had already been taken apart and that tire imprints had damaged several fossil trackways.
The Center for Biological Diversity has sent a cease-and-desist letter to the BLM, and the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has issued two formal letters requesting further information about the reported damage and how the BLM will ensure the site’s preservation. As of Monday, January 31, the BLM has paused construction work on the new boardwalk.
A statement this week from the Utah BLM said: “Before further construction takes place at the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite, a BLM regional paleontologist will be onsite conducting a resource assessment working with Utah’s state paleontologist. When construction resumes, we will ensure exposed trackways near the walkway construction will be marked and flagged for avoidance, per the environmental assessment and associated decision. At this time, we have no evidence of any damage in the interpreted area, but out of an abundance of caution, a team will be dispatched to assess.”
Fossil tracks were discovered at Mill Canyon in 2009, with the first excavations starting in 2013. It’s in a remote area. Getting to the site from the parking area is about a quarter-mile hike, according to Sternberg, a volunteer who was part of the Utah Friends of Paleontology, one of the several groups that helped bring this site to fruition.
Martin Lockley is researcher who has worked extensively at the Mill Canyon site. As an ichnologist, he studies trace fossils, meaning preserved records of animal activities such as footprints and burrows. He and his colleagues wrote three papers on the site and its fossils. He said of the BLM and the recent controversy in a phone interview: “I didn’t find out until after the work began that they posted some kind of public statement about the intent to do this work on their website, but if you look at the final document, they don’t even give the address of the website. And they also say that they received no response. Well, they received no response because nobody knew it had been posted. And that includes all of the persons that worked on the project, including some of the BLM. We had three or four BLM people as co-authors on our paper. One of them is still with the BLM, and they didn’t notify me that this work was taking place, but I think it’s because they didn’t know themselves.”
Rachel Wootton, a public affairs specialist for the Moab and Monticello region of the BLM Utah, said by phone that Brent Breithaupt, a paleontologist with the BLM, and state paleontologist Jim Kirkland are currently reviewing the site. She said that the BLM is working with them and will be using their recommendations in any future site improvements. She maintains that the aforementioned proposal was listed on the BLM website in October.
Lockley claimed that, while a lot of professional paleontologists are concerned with recent events, “some are not allowed to speak publicly.” Gizmodo tried to interview two other paleontologists who have worked on the site, both of whom declined to comment.
Lee Shenton, president-elect of the local chapter in Moab of the Utah Friends of Paleontology, said in an email that a likely “contributing factor” to the incident is the lack of a BLM district paleontologist. The previous person in that role, Rebecca Hunt-Foster, moved to another opportunity years ago to work at Dinosaur National Monument and has yet to be replaced.
Local volunteer Sternberg said she rushed to the site last week as soon as she heard something was happening. She explained that it would be easy to drive over tracks by mistake, because they can be hard to identify. “I could see someone doing that accidentally,” she said. “Some of the track layer is still buried under dirt, and some of the track layer is exposed. Here and there, you’ll see two tracks or one track or a crocodile tail swipe, and that’s the part that the guy or the woman drove over. And again, I’m sure the person who drove is horrified and has no idea. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it will just look like green rock, I guess.”
Anthony Martin, an ichnologist and professor of practice at Emory University, emphasized the site’s significance to researchers. “I can say that these sorts of tracksites always require much caution, because they are easily damaged,” he said by phone. “And as a public resource funded by taxpayer money, we should especially put more effort into making sure they’re protected in perpetuity.”
He has taught his students about Mill Canyon Tracksite. “As both a scientist and an educator, these sorts of sites are extremely important for sharing research with the public in a place where the public can actually visit it,” he said. “That’s so much different than, say, science that’s done in a research lab where nobody gets to see it except for the people in that lab. Hence, we have to put more effort into ensuring that these sorts of educational resources are available for all to enjoy.”
Both Lockley and Sternberg described their previous experiences with the BLM as being very positive, noting that the BLM has been an active partner in making sure this site and others are open to the public and preserved. “Usually, we’re just afraid of the public being vandals. That’s who you always think you’re protecting these sites from,” Sternberg said. “Just to find out that it’s a bumbling mishap by the BLM is just disappointing and frightening. We need a paleontologist here.”
“Forty years ago, people didn’t take dinosaur tracks very seriously,” Lockley added, “and I’ve been working in the Moab area for 40 years. It’s only in the last 10 years that the BLM and the Forest Service, with the help of the paleontological community—people like myself who’ve done the research in the trenches, so to speak—that they have developed these interpretive destinations for the public. And this implies that they recognize that tracks are important and that they’re something that people can see in the field.”