Welcome to the Skills Lab section on Fossil Prospecting
Before we discuss how we prospect for dinosaur fossils, we must first address the legal issues surrounding the commercial collecting of Vertebrate Fossils in Montana. In 2019, the Montana State Legislature unanimously passed a law in regards to the commercial collecting of dinosaur fossils, HB 229. This law outlined who had ownership of vertebrate fossils within the state in regards to private land. Now, in Montana, it is recognized that fossils on private land belong to the landowner, who may do with them whatever they wish.
Vertebrate fossils, like dinosaurs, on Public Lands, are not permitted to be collected by commercial companies like ours. They are reserved for academic institutions that must apply for and receive a permit to prospect and/or collect. It is illegal to disturb a dinosaur fossil in any way on public lands in Montana without a permit.
How our Group Prospects for Dinosaur Fossils:
We will divide this process up into five phases.
- Finding Potential Fossil Bearing Sediments
- Contacting the Landowner for Permission to Prospect or Collect Fossils
- Collecting a Specimen
- Major Site Excavation
Finding Potential Fossil Bearing Sediments:
The USGS publishes a map that outlines the different geological formations within Montana. This map is the basic guideline where certain kinds of dinosaurs can be found. Our group focuses mainly on the Hell Creek Formation but we also consider different formations like the Judith River. The USGS map highlights where these areas are exposed within the state.
Contacting the Landowner for Permission to Prospect or Collect Fossils:
Once we have identified areas that potentially could hold fossils, we then use a variety of resources Montana has to know who owns that land. This is critical, we cannot collect on public lands and you must contact the landowner to collect on private land. Our group has a prepared lease contract that we utilize for every landowner. This lease outlines what we will do on their land and their portion of proceeds from our efforts. We always have a signed lease agreement before we conduct any work. This lease protects the landowner and our group which makes a significant investment in finding, excavating, preparing, and selling fossils. It is only fair to the landowner and our group to have a solid contract in place before any work begins. We are very proud to compensate landowners we work with better than most, if not all commercial companies that work in Montana. We are very fair, open, and honest about all work we do on their land. We are also very considerate about how we treat the land and to not effect anything the landowner is doing on their land like farming or ranching. It is extremely important to our group to maintain a great working relationship with every landowner we contract with.
Once we have completed Phase 1 & 2, it is time to go find a dinosaur fossil! Despite what people have seen on movies like Jurassic Park, there is no equipment to find a dinosaur below the surface. The only way to find them is by hiking the land and having a vast knowledge of fossils. Every fossil site we excavate had at least some portion of the fossil on the surface. Not every fossil is worth collecting, this is where a knowledge of fossils within the formation being hiked is extremely important. One must be able to identify the species of dinosaur and the condition. We also take into consideration the cost of collection and preparation before we tackle a large project. If it is going to cost more than the fossil is worth, we usually will not collect it. In some cases like this, we may contact an academic institution that might want to take on that kind of project. We have done this in the past we only ask that the landowner is compensated for the site. The reality is that 99% of all fossils found on the surface are not worth collecting. Once a fossil is exposed to the elements like the sun, rain, or freezing, they are broken down and destroyed and rendered worthless to science or collectors. It is always our hope to find one that has not been taken to that point.
Collecting a Specimen:
We will collect a single element or take on a massive excavation depending on its value. Either way, the basic process is the same.
- Photograph the specimen in-situ.
- Record the GPS coordinates to verify its position on the proper private land. We also take a picture of the GPS readout along with the specimen in the picture before it is disturbed.
- Stabilize the exposed fossil with either cyanoacrylates or Vinac.
- Collect the specimen if it is an individual element and capable of being collected without further work.
- Determine if this is either an individual element or the start of a major site. Depending on what we see and based on our experience, we can determine if the exposed fossil is the start of a major site. If the later is the case, we will conduct a preliminary excavation with hand equipment to prove the site and determine if larger equipment is necessary.
- A Major Site: In the event the initial discovery leads us to believe much more of the specimen is buried, we must develop a site plan for excavation.
Major Site Excavation:
All right, we have a major site! This is our ultimate goal each season. It is always our hope for 1 major site a year, which is an extremely difficult goal to achieve. Once we are confident there is a high possibility of a major site, we have a tried and true method of excavation.
- Establish the fossil bearing layer - We must find the layer the specimen is in and figure out the approximate area it could encompass. This takes years of experience.
- Remove overburden - This is one of the major processes. There can be a few feet of dirt on top of the site up to 80 feet. There is a certain limit to our excavation abilities. If the overburden is too much, it will render the site more costly than it is worth. Also, if the area is deemed unsafe to remove the overburden, we will abandon it. For most sites, we have a skidsteer to remove overburden along with hiring outside excavators or dozers depending on the amount. This process again is determined by experience. We must estimate the size of the area the specimen may be encompassed in to ensure we have the ability to safely excavate the entire specimen.
- Setting up a Mapping Grid - At that point, we set up a mapping grid to allow us to document every fossil removed from the site. All museums require this process and it is important for documenting and describing the specimen. This grid will encompass the entire site no matter how we remove the specimen. Most times our group will take out a massive block of the site and try to expose the least amount of fossil possible. We usually perimeter the site and take that area in one field jacket that can weigh many thousands of pounds. Our group is extremely skilled in conducting massive jacket construction to ensure the safety of the fossils contained. It is much better to expose the fossils in a controlled environment like of preparation facility than in the field. If we do remove individual elements, they will be photographed with a number and recorded on the mapping grid.
- Send Fossils to be Prepared - Once the site has been deemed cleared, all fossils will be transported to the CKP preparation facility to be prepared.
- Site Reclamation - Once we are sure the site is cleared, we will reclaim the site to the landowners specification.