|Simply stated, there is a lot of
confusion about the specific laws pertaining to the collection of
vertebrate fossils. However, the bottom line, at this point in time,
is that, with the exception of paleontologists and institutions who
have obtained permits, you cannot collect from State or Federal
lands, period! You can collect from private property with the
permission of the landowner; however, many local paleontologists
request that significant finds be left alone pending professional
Historically, starting with the Antiquities Act of 1906, which has been amended and revised numerous times, you may not collect vertebrate fossils from state or federal land unless you have a paleontological permit. In 1974, the 9th Circuit Court declared that “objects of antiquity” was unconstitutionally vague because of lack of a definition. Part of the confusion with specific laws is that there is no national policy regarding collection. Rather, the government has left it up to individual agencies to set their own criteria. The latest regulations from the Forest Service were enacted in 1994, but they only pertained to Cave Management regulations. In 2006, final rules from the BLM, USDA, DOI, TVA, and Office of Environmental Quality became effective. The outcome of this approach is poor management. While administrative regulations provide some protection for vertebrate fossils, the current piecemeal policy results in the intentional and unintentional theft of these resources and the loss of irreplaceable scientific information.
On March 30, 2009, one of the latest iterations of this policy, the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act became law:
"Except as provided in this subtitle, a paleontological resource may not be collected from Federal land without a permit issued under this subtitle by the secretary."
Section 6301(4) defines paleontological resource as: "....any fossilized remains, traces, or imprints of organisms, preserved in or on the earth's crust, that are of paleontological interest and that provide information about the history of life on earth...."
In accordance with 18 USC, Section 641, the taking of vertebrate fossils is theft of government property. Violators can be fined from $1,000 to $10,000 and jailed from 1 to 10 years. Any vertebrate fossil finds or fossil beds should be reported to a BLM office for evaluation.
You can collect from private land if you have the permission of the landowner.
Comprehensive summaries of the history of federal laws pertaining to the collection of vertebrate fossils can be found at the following sites:
Now we come to the gray area, the reality that truly defines the "business" of bone hunting and fossil sales. On any given day of the week, anyone can walk into several of the larger rock shops in the four corners region and literally purchase tons of dinosaur bone, legally! Most of this material would probably not be very good "gem" quality bone, but there is no distinction in the laws between "gem" and "junk" bone. This is where I obtained my material, by buying it from rock shops throughout the Colorado Plateau for the past 35 years.
It is a fair bet that some of this material was collected illegally. However, with no checks or controls over this process for the past 100 years, it would be quite impossible to address past infractions. This does raise one of the more controversial issues of bone hunting, the role of the amateur. As stated, amateur bone hunting is not allowed on state or federal lands. In truth, however, many amateur collectors consider themselves the backbone of vertebrate paleontology. It is their discoveries, which are shown to local authorities, which have led to many of the major fossil finds of the past century. The reason this works is that it is probable that 99% of all fossils are destroyed by erosion before being discovered by anyone. It is also probable that most public land remains unexplored by any paleontologist. The fact of the matter is, there are not enough professionals to hunt, identify, and collect the numerous fossils that are currently exposed above-ground and subject to destructive weathering. There is too much land, too many fossils, and too few paleontologists. On top of this, it takes a tremendous amount of time, money, and resources to properly perform a single dig.
This has not been presented as an effort to support collecting. In fact, the BoneMasters advocate a policy of non-collection. Only an expert can tell if a remote, dis-articulated find is of any scientific value. The smallest fossils can provide the largest clues. A dedicated policy of ethics is followed; no material is collected from state or federal lands and no specimens are damaged in order to extract the gemstone inside.
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