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A counselor and others from a Texas community college have been charged with stealing dinosaur bones from state trust lands in Wayne County during a visit to Utah last May.
The group was from McLennan Community College, a Waco-based school that sends students to Utah for summer geology field trips. Last year the college's field program visited the Mars Desert Research Station and the Burpee dinosaur quarry, about 10 miles northwest of Hanksville.
These lands are a Jurassic fossil trove, filled with ancient trees and bones of familiar dinosaur species. The remains are exposed in many places.
On the weekend of May 23-24, the 53-year-old counselor and four others associated with a McLennan field trip, including students, removed fossils and took them back to Texas, according to the Bureau of Land Management. State prosecutors filed a variety of theft and trespassing counts, including one third-degree felony, on Wednesday in 6th District Court in Loa.
Fossil theft is a chronic problem in southern Utah where public lands harbor deposits of paleontological resources of great value to science. Thieves usually wreck the fossils they steal because extricating ancient bones is painstaking, often tedious work that requires special tools and skills.
The Texans charged in this case likewise damaged the bones and the stone, according to the charges.
The Burpee Museum of Natural History in Illinois excavates in Utah under permit with the BLM. However, museum officials said the Texans' alleged theft did not involve their dig sites.
The counselor and another nonstudent charged in the theft case were not acting as instructors, but rather served as "sponsors" on last year's Utah trip, according to college president Johnette McKown.
"They made their own choices, which were in contradiction to the instruction they received. We went to great lengths [to inform participants of the rules] and they hid what they did from our professor. She is hugely disappointed," McKown said. "This is one of our premier trips. She has implemented additional training since then. She is having the students on the next trip practice turning each other in."
But, she added: "I don't think we will go back to Burpee this year."
The counselor worked as a student adviser and adjunct instructor in management at the college, but is no longer associated with the school, its president said. All three students charged have since graduated.
BLM officials declined to say how they learned of the theft because it remains under adjudication. Agents traveled to Texas, interviewed the suspects and recovered 60 pounds of bones, worth $2,500.
These fragments were matched to corresponding cavities in the Burpee quarry, which happened to be on a section of state trust land, not federal land, according to BLM spokesman Ryan Sutherland.
"Trespass and theft will not be tolerated. Misuse devalues trust lands and their resources, which are managed exclusively to generate revenue for Utah's public school system," said School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration director David Ure. "On behalf of the public school beneficiary, SITLA appreciates the diligent work of the BLM for leading this theft and trespass investigation."