- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 6, 2005

CHADRON, Neb. (AP) — When three suspicious men were stopped on federal land in remote northwestern Nebraska in 2003, the U.S. Forest Service didn’t take 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, most fossil poachers are never caught, said Barbara Beasley, a Forest Service paleontologist. Only one federal law-enforcement officer patrols 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.

“Very seldom do we actually catch people in the act,” Miss Beasley said. “We just got lucky that time.”

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

Federal officials previously did not make fossil-poaching a priority, but they have changed policy in the past few years, Miss Beasley said.

She and others who conduct field work on federal lands are now undergoing training to be forest protection officers, with 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, Miss Beasley said. Exposed holes and excavation tools are found routinely on the federally protected grasslands. Of more than 162 grassland areas identified in the 1990s as containing fossils, about 30 percent showed evidence of poaching, she said.

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

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.

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.”

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