First it was the pillaging of prehistoric Indian ruins for saleable artifacts.
Now federal investigators are facing a new - and potentially more devastating - threat: Vandals are stealing tons of dinosaur bones from federal lands, bones that, in many cases, sell for far more than Anasazi pottery or baskets."It's gotten out of hand," said Julie Howard, an archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management in Moab. "We have a shop here in Moab that is selling a ton of dinosaur bone a month. And we know it's also going to New Mexico and California."
The dinosaur bones sell for as much as $75 a pound, depending on the quality. Large dinosaur bones can weigh several hundred pounds.
"(The thieves) found dinosaur bones are much more profitable than pothunting," Howard said.
Investigators say some of the people pillaging dinosaur bones are the same ones who pillage Anasazi Indian ruins. As with pothunting, they are using heavy equipment to remove dinosaur skeletons embedded in the rock.
Howard added that people are even taking rock saws and cutting dinosaur footprints from a slickrock road bed near Moab.
"We've always had people who surface-collected dinosaur bones," Howard said. "But now we actually have people excavating them and being paid to do it."
BLM officials have identified sites in the Lisbon Valley in San Juan County and near the Moab airport in Grand County that have been heavily damaged in quarrying activities. Sites in Colorado are also believed to be targeted.
Craig Harmon, the Utah BLM's head archaeologist, acknowledged a criminal investigation is under way. And BLM rangers this week began began regular patrols and erecting signs warning that collection of vertebrate fossils is illegal under federal law.
Harmon admitted the laws directed at fossil collection are not nearly so stringent as those for collecting Indian artifacts. Existing laws will be used to pursue those who pillage any irreplaceable public and scientific resource, he said.
The code of federal regulations deals with the theft and destruction of government property and specifies the amounts and types of things that can be collected, he added.
"A ton a month is not a legitimate collection. Collection of vertebrate fossils like dinosaurs is not legitimate collection."
Frank DeCourten, a paleontologist at the Utah Museum of Natural History, said Utah was once known as a haven for fossil researchers. Now it's become a haven for vandals.
"The good specimens, the complete and well preserved ones are extremely rare and those are the ones that command the highest prices on international markets," he said. "Once they are gone, they are gone forever."
The boom in the fossil market has hurt museums in particular. Not only is scientific information lost when vandals remove the bones, but rare fossils that were once donated to museums by private citizens are now coming with large price tags attached - something most museums cannot afford or refuse to do because of ethics.
"Money has become the sole motivator of these people," DeCourten said.
DeCourten sees more and more evidence of illegal and unauthorized collection, not only in Utah but around the Western states. And that has prompted serious concern on the part of paleontologists as to how to protect known resources from vandals.
"It's a shame. Now that the lid has come down so hard on archaeological vandalism, people are shifting their attention to fossils."