Friday, July 13, 2012

"In An Undisclosed Location, An Unspecified Distance From Tumbler Ridge"

I was driving back from our bush camp last night, and heard the news of the Grande Prairie hadrosaur excavation vandalism on the radio (we're out of cell and internet contact at the site, so this was the first time I had heard about the incident). My initial emotional response was "Oh, for @*$@'s sake!", and when I heard about the liquor store receipt that may eventually lead to the identification of these primitive screwheads, I though "Typical". Drunken idiots and vandals (destructive and graffiti alike) are the reason we as a society cannot have nice things.

"An undisclosed location, an unspecified distance away from Tumbler Ridge". I often use this line when talking with media, funding agencies, politicians, and the general public when they ask the inevitable question about the location of the PRPRC's hadrosaur (duck-billed dinosaur) excavation. If I am feeling exceptionally wicked, I will also say "If I tell you that, I'd have no choice but to kill you." The recipient of either response usually reacts with an initial stunned and confused look, and then with laughter. To dispel the notion that I'm just being cute and coy with them, I then explain that, sadly, secrecy is the best protection for fossil sites, and even the best concealed, best cared-for localities are not immune to anthropogenic degradation (a.k.a. idiots with no deeper appreciation for heritage and culture). I wish that I had only hypothetical examples on which to draw when illustrating the importance of site security, but unfortunately I can now add the Grande Prairie incident as another too-close-to-home-for-comfort example.

Some people become insulted when I do not reveal the locations of our fossil sites. I understand that no one wants to feel like they are not trusted, but fossil vandalism and theft are as rampant in the Peace Region as they are in any other part of the world, and until I develop psychic abilities I cannot guess the motive behind the requests from the general public for locality data. I am sure 99% of the people ask out of interest and curiosity, but we have had the less than subtle ask for locations with commercial ventures in mind. At this point in time British Columbia does not have protective legislation for fossils on Crown lands, although there is a Fossil Management Framework that suggests management guidelines for fossil resource use and lists the existing legislation that can be used to protect fossil sites. These all require an oftentimes lengthy application process. As a palaeontologist I view one of my roles as "The Voice of the Fossils," and it is my view that it is in the best interest of fossils on the Crown Lands of British Columbia to have wholesale protective legislation that is specific to fossil resources. However, even protective legislation does not stop the kind of heritage destruction that occurred in Grande Prairie. What it does provide is the means for a legal investigation of the destruction, and the prosecution of the people involved.

These people do not even stop to consider that what they are damaging is a non-renewable resource. There is no bulk bin of dinosaur bones at the local warehouse store where we can get a replacement if a fossil is damaged or destroyed. Even in the apparent ossuary cornucopia of Dinosaur Provincial Park fossils are not easy to come by: it takes many man-hours of prospecting to find complete or partially complete skeletons. These animals are an irreplaceable record of an ecosystem that rose, flourished, and declined millions of years ago. Every fossil is a unique page in the only existing copy of the ecosystem-book: damaging or destroying a fossil is the equivalent of ripping out pages from the book. You've permanently lost both scientific information and educational opportunities.

There are several types of anthropogenic degradation that I have encountered in various local and international sites. 2005 saw the theft of the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation's "signature" theropod footprint from the Wolverine River Lantern Tour Site. The specimen was eventually turned over to the RCMP who promptly deposited it in the PRPRC Collections Facility, but the damage had been done: several other footprints were destroyed in the removal of the specimen, and the specimen itself bears permanent chisel and pry-bar gouges from the thief's activity. There are other track sites in the Peace Region that bear spray-painted messages of "I Love So-And-So" and "Evolution = Lie". (I will later provide images of this vandalism, but right now my internet access is limited and I am having issues uploading photos.) There are also cases where people, well-intentioned or not, try to make their own copies of footprints using very outdated and damaging techniques. I cannot stress enough how damaging this is to footprints, and the prints at the Cabin Pool-Flatbed site are becoming so damaged that we are considering their removal for their protection. This is a case of the selfish few ruining the visitation experience of the general dinosaur-interested public.

One criticism that I hear regarding site protection is "Why don't you hire security for the sites?" or "Why not set up webcams to monitor the sites?" I think that people either a) overestimate the amount of resources paleontologists have to devote to field activities in the first place, let alone site-specific security, or b) people underestimate the logistical difficulty of monitoring a remote location. Sometimes the sheer difficulty of accessing a site it protection enough, but it is difficult to monitor (electronically or physically) an easy-to-access location without also attracting attention to said location. If you see cameras and various electronic equipment established near a seemingly inconspicuous bit of outcrop, you are sure as heck going to investigate further. As for security personnel patrolling a patch of bush and rock, I could not think of a better way to proclaim "Something important here", save publishing the GPS coordinates in the local paper. "Out of site, out of mind" is the best approach for site security. Usually it works, but in the event it fails I want the ability to use whatever legal means necessary to charge and prosecute the perpetrators. I hope we soon hear that the Grande Prairie perpetrators are caught and given the highest penalty possible. The more examples that are made of these morons, the better.

The optimist in me hopes for the day that we do not have to worry about loutish individuals looting and damaging irreplaceable heritage sites, but the cynic in me knows that as long as there are people, there will be those that either believe they are above the law and general ethics, or are too dense to realize that their actions have permanent consequences.

This is the Shaman signing off and heading back out to an undisclosed location in the bush an unspecified distance from Tumbler Ridge. If I told you where, I'd have to kill you.


  1. I don't imagine that the highest penalty possible will amount to much, which is unfortunate since the world is worse off without the damaged specimens than without the drooling knuckle-draggers who did it.

  2. I'm sad to say that I'm not surprised by what happened in Grande Prairie after my limited experiences up there. When we excavated the Red Willow Hadrosaur in 2003 we were constantly chasing people out of the site after hours even though we were camped in full view right across the river. What really amazed me was that these people thought nothing of coming onto private land to go check out the site! We even had some people try to go see it in the middle of the night with flashlights - but they took off pretty quickly when we started yelling at them. Who knows what kind of damage they would've done if we had been staying somewhere else.

    Back in the '80s when Darren was working the Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai bonebed near Grande Prairie the vandalism and theft was so bad that they took the time to create a false work site further downstream that people would come across first so they would go no further and end up leaving the real bonebed alone. It must've been worth the time spent on it because things calmed down there for them.

    Unfortunately, even with a receipt, they will never get charges to stick - unless these morons are found to have bones from the site at their house. Otherwise all they have to say is that they were there the day before or it was from the next camp site over or something like that. They will never be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they did all of the damage. Hopefully when the RCMP start getting close, these idiots will throw up their hands and admit to it hoping to keep the fines low - but I'm not very optimistic about that.

    So, Lisa, when people ask you where your locality is, tell them whatever will keep you and the site safe. If they don't like it, well, it's just too damn bad. :)