Science: The Fossil Gestapo


Located 12 miles from Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Hill City is a tiny and economically depressed town that relies on logging and tourism to support its population of 650. So it was big news when Neal and Pete Larson opened the Black Hills Institute for Geographical Research down the street from Hill City School, a K–12 school that serves children living as far as 20 miles away. Not only were the Larsons world-renowned paleontologists, but, by creating 15 new jobs, the institute became the town's third-largest employer (behind the school and the lumber yard).

And last spring the Larsons brought the international spotlight to Hill City when the institute excavated the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever discovered. The town was abuzz with excitement: The Larsons began constructing a museum to house the 60-million-year-old treasure, National Geographic's top photographer announced plans for a photo shoot, a Canadian firm began filming an IMAX film on the excavation, and the paleontologists at the institute made headlines around the world as their ground-breaking research began shedding new light on the life of the most powerful carnivore ever to roam the earth.

But the excitement ended with a display of force greater than any in Hill City's history. In a surprise raid at dawn on May 12, 30 armed FBI agents and 20 National Guardsmen sealed the institute and loaded the 10-ton fossil into crates and onto two 18-wheel tractor-trailer trucks. They also carted away all written records pertaining to the fossil, While the National Guardsmen moved the dinosaur bones, U.S. Attorney Kevin Schieffer offered this terse explanation for the raid: "The fossil is property of the United States. Period."

The politically ambitious Schieffer was prepared for the television camera crews that arrived on the scene—he even wore face makeup—but he certainly wasn't prepared for the reaction of Hill City's 650 residents. The school children were so angered that the feds stole their T. rex that they erected a giant replica of the dinosaur in the town center—complete with a rosy-cheeked effigy of Schieffer crushed in the beast's jaw. One observer summed up the general feeling in the town: "We have a criminal justice system, and one of those criminals just stole a dinosaur."

For now the federal government has the once-mighty T. rex locked up in crates and under FBI guard. It is the subject of a bitter custody battle among the United States, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, and the institute. Among the tangle of issues raised by this highly unusual exercise of federal power are the property rights of American Indians and the ability of private individuals to conduct scientific research on public lands. The resolution of these issues will affect museum collections, university studies, and fossil dealers around the world.

The story began in August 1990, when commercial paleontologist Susan Hendrickson discovered the T. rex's protruding bones on the land of South Dakota rancher Maurice Williams, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. Hendrickson's employer, the Black Hills Institute for Geological Research, paid Williams $5,000 for the right to the fossil. A dozen professional paleontologists then spent over 1,000 hours excavating the T. rex and bringing it to Hill City for further study and restoration.

As the excavation got under way, it became apparent that the fossil was a priceless scientific marvel. Forty-one feet long and 13 feet tall, the skeleton has teeth the size of bananas and even includes the fossilized remains of the reptile's last meal (a duck-billed dinosaur). Furthermore, there are only 10 other known T. rex skeletons in the world. Sensing a financial windfall, the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe contacted the U.S. attorney's office to inquire about their rights to the fossil. But by ordering the surprise raid and declaring the bones federal property, Schieffer surprised the tribe as much as anybody else.

Citing the obscure Antiquities Act of 1906, which bans the removal of man-made artifacts from federal lands (it has never been applied to fossils), Schieffer said that Maurice Williams had no right to sell the fossil found on his land. With the stroke of a pen, Schieffer declared Williams's ranch federal property. To understand how he did this, you have to understand the bizarre tangle of federal laws that apply to Indian reservations.

Shortly after buying the ranch from a white homesteader in 1969, Williams exercised his right to have the property temporarily held in trust for him by the federal government. This legal loophole allows Indians to avoid paying property taxes. Schieffer argued that because the land is held in trust by the federal government, it is actually federal property—and therefore under the jurisdiction of the Antiquities Act. If this interpretation of federal control is correct, Indian property owners on reservations have no property rights.

Schieffer's action and its implications regarding property rights on the reservation stunned South Dakota Indians. "The United States government has kept the Indian nations under its thumb for more than 200 years," mused Tim Giago of the Lakota Times in a column entitled "Federalosaurus Rex Rides Again." Giago condemned the seizure, as did tribal chairman Gregg Bourland.

While the seizure was not intended as an assault on American Indian property rights, it was clearly an effort to thwart the work of commercial paleontologists. Federal authorities simply don't like the idea of science for profit.

Founded in 1978, the Black Hills Institute is a for-profit company that works without public subsidies and without federal supervision. It funds its work through sales of restored dinosaur fossils—to museums, universities, and private collectors. The institute's long list of clients includes the Yale Peabody Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian Institution.

Most fossils used in university studies or housed in museums were found either by amateur fossil collectors or commercial dealers. But for purists, there is something unseemly about digging up dinosaur bones for profit. As Robert Hunt, the secretary of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, asked incredulously, "How can you possibly put a price on a fossil?"

The seizure of this T. rex has divided the paleontology community into two camps: those who deplore the raid and those who applaud it as a step toward banning commercial fossil collecting. Led by Hunt, the latter group wants to prohibit the sale of fossils and to ensure that fossil collecting is regulated, supervised, and licensed by federal authorities. The first step in fighting private collectors is keeping them off federal property. For Hunt, "Prohibition of commercial collecting on federal lands is essential to scientific progress in vertebrate paleontology."

In the wake of the T. rex seizure, the executive committee of the SVP issued a direct attack on members Neal and Pete Larson by calling for the expulsion of members who "engage in commercial collection and sale of vertebrate fossils from Federal lands." They also lobbied Congress in favor of a bill introduced by Sen. Max Baucus (D–Mont.) that would ban commercial collectors from federal lands. In a memorandum to SVP members, the executive committee explained that "vertebrate fossils are part of a national trust" that must be protected from commercial paleontologists who might sell them to private, or even foreign, collectors.

But not all professional paleontologists agree with the strident position against commercial collecting. In fact, Clayton Ray, the SVP vice president, resigned to protest the stand taken by the governing committee. The curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Smithsonian Institution, Ray has been an SVP member for 30 years and was due to become its president in October. Another prominent paleontologist, Robert Bakker of the University of Colorado, told The New York Times, "Through the whole history of dinosaur paleontology, more discoveries of new species and whole new faunas have been made by 'amateurs' than those few people privileged enough to draw taxpayers' money to do their job."

In fact, Pete Larson's Black Hills Institute has excavated two of the 11 discovered T. rex skeletons. If these bones had not been unearthed by these enterprising paleontologists, they would have eventually been destroyed by erosion.

Hunt argues that "scientific values" of dinosaur fossils must "take precedence over more transient commercial and recreational values." Most paleontologists would agree. But Hunt's war against commercial collecting sets back the cause of science.

Donald Wolberg, of the New Mexico School of Mines, puts it this way: "Commercial collectors and amateurs make terrific contributions to paleontology by getting these things in the open. Our job is to learn and educate people about what fossils mean, not to put people in jail because they make a living digging them up."

Wolberg served with Black Hills Institute President Pete Larson on a National Academy of Sciences committee on paleontological collecting. To the dismay of many in the federal government, the committee's report touted the contributions of private collectors and recommended that they be given increased access to federal lands.

The report read, "The Committee was dismayed to learn of the number of instances of disruption of collecting by what seem to be overzealous regulatory activities of federal agencies. From a scientific viewpoint, the role of the land manager should be to facilitate exploration for, and collection of, paleontological materials." The report was released in 1987 and approved by a vote of the SVP membership, but its recommendations were never followed. Instead, five years later, overzealous regulatory activity culminated in an FBI raid on the Black Hills Institute.

At the time of the federal seizure, the Black Hills Institute was preparing the skull of the T. rex for a trip to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama for a CAT scan by NASA scientists. The test would have been the first of its kind ever done. It promised to bring new clues about dinosaur anatomy, but like all other scientific work on the T. rex, the plans for the CAT scan were indefinitely delayed by the FBI raid.

U.S. Attorney Schieffer offered a typically bureaucratic rationalization for halting the ground-breaking research: "It's waited 67 million years for a CAT scan. Will another year or two make a difference? Right now it's evidence in a criminal case."

With research halted and commercial paleontology dealt a serious setback, the 650 citizens of Hill City struggle to understand why the federal government stole their dinosaur. Before the raid, local school children had been raising money through bake sales for a planned nonprofit museum that was to house the T. rex they named "Sue," after its discoverer. Since then, townspeople have dubbed the museum "Sue Freedom Center" and held signs saying "Free Sue" and "Stop the Fossil Gestapo."

Shortly after the seizure, Sen. Tom Daschle (D–S.D.) came to Hill City to hold a town meeting about Sue. As more than 100 locals gathered on the steps of a local restaurant, Daschle referred to the seizure of the T. rex as an "invasion" and said, "There is something un-American about the way this was handled. In some other countries, you expect paratroopers to come in, but not in the United States, and certainly not in South Dakota."

A former resident of Hill City, Jonathan Karl is the associate editor of Freedom Review, a bimonthly magazine published by Freedom House.