When three suspicious men were stopped on federal land in remote northwestern Nebraska in 2003, it did not take the Forest Service 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 were also found. The men were poaching fossils, a practice the Forest Service says has become rampant in recent years at Oglala National Grasslands, reports the Associated Press.
Although the men in this case were arrested and eventually convicted in federal court, a Forest Service paleontologist said most fossil poachers are never caught. There is only one federal law enforcement officer patrolling 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. Poachers include academics, those hoping to sell fossils on the black market and those who simply have their curiosity piqued by dinosaurs. Of more than 162 grassland areas identified in the 1990’s as holding fossils, about 30 percent showed evidence of poaching. Dinosaur fossils turn up by the hundreds at fossil shows, in catalogs and on Internet auction sites. The sales can be lucrative. In June, a saber-toothed-cat skull sold for $32,312 at a Bonhams & Butterfields natural history auction.