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Paleontologists to be included in future construction at damaged Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite

Three-toed dinosaur footprints on a dried mudflat
Bureau of Land Management
Dinosaur footprints in the rock at Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite.

The Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite near Moab is ranked the seventh most important preserved tracksite in the United States. Last week, reports of damage to the site by BLM construction emerged. To halt more potential damages, The Center of Biological Diversity issued a cease-and-desist letter to the BLM on January 31st.

According to Martin Lockley, a retired professor of geology from the University of Colorado, Denver, who has done extensive work at the site, the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite has high scientific and educational value.

“Mill Canyon has about 200 fossil footprints visible on the exposed surface, and they represent eight or ten different types of dinosaurs and other creatures, like…bird tracks and…crocodile tracks, and they're very well preserved,” Lockley said.

Unlike fossils, track sites are difficult to extract for preservation, in part because they often cover large areas, and are usually left on-site, making them sensitive to development.

Patrick Donnelly is the Great Basin director with the Center for Biological Diversity. He said the BLM has remained relatively quiet on the incident, but are working on improvements.

“They halted work the day of the incident being made public. And they're bringing in a regional paleontologist, from BLM, who's apparently well-regarded. And they said they're gonna, you know, make efforts to involve the paleontological community in the future management of the site,” Donnelly explained.

According to Donnelly, the damage at Mill Canyon is unique, as it occurred directly under BLM and not by a permitted developer. Additionally, visitors surveying the damage said flagging to guide construction crews away from the delicate tracks were absent.

Paleontologists were involved with the construction of the boardwalk in 2013, but Lockley said that didn’t happen with its removal.

“It appears to us professionals that they consulted us in the first phase…and then a few years later, it's all ripped out and we knew nothing about it,” Lockley said.

Donnelly worried this oversight may be the result of chronic understaffing at BLM.

“An understaffed and under-resourced condition at BLM is pervasive and has been for years, and so this is kind of the result of that choking off of the agency's resources over time,” Donnelly said.

Aimee Van Tatenhove is a science reporter at UPR. She spends most of her time interviewing people doing interesting research in Utah and writing stories about wildlife, new technologies and local happenings. She is also a PhD student at Utah State University, studying white pelicans in the Great Salt Lake, so she thinks about birds a lot! She also loves fishing, skiing, baking, and gardening when she has a little free time.