Barbara Beasley was the first person called to investigate when three suspicious men were stopped on federal land in remote northwest Nebraska. It didn't take the U.S. Forest Service official long to find what they had been doing: digging an 18-by-10-foot hole more than 2 feet deep that left the fossilized bones of a prehistoric rhinoceros called a brontothere exposed.
CHADRON, Neb. Barbara Beasley was the first person called to investigate when three suspicious men were stopped on federal land in remote northwest Nebraska. It didn't take the U.S. Forest Service official long to find what they had been doing: digging an 18-by-10-foot hole more than 2 feet deep that left the fossilized bones of a prehistoric rhinoceros called a brontothere exposed. Plaster used to take casts of the bones and excavating tools also were found.
The men, it turns out, were poaching fossils on federal land -- a practice the U.S. Forest Service says has become rampant in recent years at Oglala National Grasslands near Toadstool Geological Park.
The men, arrested in 2003, were among the handful who are ever caught stealing fossils from federal land and the only ones in decades to be convicted in Nebraska's federal courts. That's mainly because there is only one federal law enforcement officer to patrol 1.1 million acres of federal forest land in Nebraska and South Dakota, said Jerry Schumacher, a spokesman for the Forest Service.
The low chances of getting caught and the volcanic dust of the grasslands that preserves the bones of prehistoric animals make it easy for those with even the most elementary knowledge of archaeology to walk onto the land and take what they want.
In fact, the size of the hole left by the men suggested they had been digging for several days, Beasley said.
"Very seldom do we actually catch people in the act," she said. "We just got lucky that time."
The poachers range from those hoping to sell fossils on the black market to academics to those who simply have their curiosity piqued by a show on dinosaurs.
"It's like panning for gold," said Rusty Dersch, a geologist with the U.S. Forest Service. "The first time you find a few flakes, and you want to find a few more. It grows on you."
The Forest Service has averaged one arrest a year in the past decade, Beasley said, but most of those have come in the last few years as the Forest Service put more effort into stopping fossil poaching.
That's where Beasley comes in. She has worked for the U.S. Forest Service for nearly 14 years, but not in law enforcement. She's a paleontologist. She and others who often conduct field work on federal lands have undergone training to be forest protection officers.
That gives them the authority to investigate criminal cases but not to carry firearms.
"I was scared to death," Beasley said of the call to investigate in 2003. "Law enforcement -- they make their careers confronting people. I'm a science person."
These days, evidence of poaching shows up nearly every week, Beasley said. Exposed holes and excavation tools are routinely found on the federally protected grasslands. Of more than 162 grassland areas identified in the 1990s as holding fossils, about 30 percent showed evidence of poaching, Beasley said.
Other evidence shows up at fossil shows, in catalogs and on Internet auction sites, where dinosaur fossils turn up by the hundreds.
"We have researchers and academic scientists who find our permitting process difficult and just decide to go around it," Beasley said. "But a lot of them just want to sell fossils."
It can be lucrative.
A quick search of Internet auction site eBay turns up fossilized skulls of prehistoric animals ranging from just over $100 to more than $2,000. On June 5, a saber-toothed cat skull sold for $32,312 at a Bonhams & Butterfields Natural History auction.
In fact, one of Beasley's duties is to keep up with the market price of fossils. That way, she says, when poachers are convicted, she can give prosecutors an idea of how much restitution offenders should pay.
The three who were prosecuted in Nebraska's federal courts were ordered to pay $2,000 each, but one of the trio, Tom Neumeyer of Sheboygan, Wis., says it's cost him a lot more than that.
"I'm about $12,000 into this, mostly in lawyer costs," he said from his home.
Neumeyer, a technical college welding teacher, declined to give his reason for wanting the dinosaur bones, saying he is still on probation and feared talking about the incident.
He said he and the other two weren't aware they were on federal land, but quickly added that 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."
That's just the kind of message the Forest Service wants to send as high black market prices for fossils drive more poachers onto federal lands.
"There's been more attention paid to poaching ... a lot of it because of the higher profile of fossils as the black market prices climb," Beasley said. "Our plan is to deter unauthorized collecting."
Source: Associated Press