Baltimore group sells fossils, fuels debate Specialists bemoan 'poaching' of bones

October 01, 1993|By Brian Burnes | Brian Burnes,The Kansas City Star

For sale: 1,438 pieces of brontosaur bone.

That's the pitch from the International Collectors Society of Baltimore.

Recently, the company circulated a news release advising that these particular fossil fragments, apparently found on private land in central Utah, were available. The relics -- $14.95 each, plus $3 for postage and handling -- come packaged in velvet pouches with attendant certificates of authenticity.

The certificate alleges that the 150-million-year-old fossils date from the Jurassic period.

The key word is "Jurassic."

The popularity of the summer hit movie "Jurassic Park" has created a fresh dinosaur market that the collectors clearinghouse hopes to tap.

Some paleontologists and dinosaur enthusiasts reacted to the offer with ambivalence or laughter. But the idea angered others, who saw it as an example of increasing demand for an especially nonrenewable national resource -- vertebrate fossils -- that all the dinosaur hoopla has fueled.

"One of the problems that professional paleontologists have these days is the tremendous amount of illegal [fossil] collecting, especially of dinosaurs, that is going on on federal and state lands in the western United States," said Michael Nelson, head of the science division at Northeast Missouri State University in Kirksville.

Others working in the field were not so alarmed.

Dinosaur bones or fragments often are sold at any large rock show, said Larry Martin, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Museum of Natural History at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

"It doesn't do a lot of harm," he said.

Small fragments of dinosaur bones are not uncommon. In fact, varieties of dinosaur fossil fragments were available last week at Ace's Rock Shop, a Westport-area store for gem collectors, silversmiths and hobbyists.

The dinosaur enthusiasm of recent years has provided many benefits, said Rita Helwig, store owner. The effect of a recent dinosaur exhibit at the Kansas City Museum was reflected in the number of children who began visiting her shop.

zTC "Those kids knew the names of many of the dinosaurs," she said.

David Gillette, state paleontologist of Utah, the site of many dinosaur fossil beds, also reported an overwhelming interest in the subject.

"The surge of interest in dinosaurs has come in many forms: in foreign travel from tourists, collectors and paleontologists," Mr. Gillette said. "We've been overwhelmed by phone calls and inquiries about dinosaurs."

No law prohibits vertebrate fossil excavation on private land, Mr. Nelson said. On federal property, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management establish their own policies. In most cases, their policies prohibit both amateur and commercial collectors from excavating vertebrate fossils, but grant universities and museums permission for research activities.

"But there is so much federal land, and with only people like the BLM and Forest Service to watch over it all, there is a tremendous amount of illegal collecting going on," Mr. Nelson said.

On one side of the argument are paleontologists who want to protect unique fossil beds from extensive "poaching" by commercial collectors, some of whom seek to serve a growing demand among collectors in Europe and the Far East.

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, a group that claims commercial collectors among its 1,600 members, supports passage of the federal Vertebrate Paleontological Resources Protection Act, also known as the Baucus Bill. While it is currently illegal to collect vertebrate fossils on federal land and sell them, the bill seeks to clarify current law and better define the role of amateur collectors, said Mr. Nelson, a society member.

But some collectors contend that professional paleontologists should not have first call on fossils.

In fact, the Baltimore news release trumpets how paleontologists do not like commercial offers such as theirs.

"We make no apologies to the scientists," said Scott Tilson, president of the International Collectors Society of Baltimore. "We feel they live in an ivory tower, and they think that these artifacts should be handled by them and them alone. We feel these people shouldn't have any special privileges."

Doug DeRosear, a board member of the Mid-America Paleontology Society, agreed. The group of about 500 fossil enthusiasts, many of whom call themselves amateur paleontologists, organizes an annual all-fossil show called the MAPS Expo in Macomb, Ill.

"I see nothing wrong with letting anybody collect," said Mr. DeRosear, an Iowa state soil conservation technician. "Most of the great finds have been made by amateurs."

Under the proposed federal bill, amateurs could collect on public lands.

In the debate, the enduring educational function of fossil-collecting may be lost, Ms. Helwig said. Certainly not all fossil enthusiasts are looking for a dinosaur to sell. For example, display cases at Ace's Rock Shop last week included small fossils found in the Kansas City region.

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