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HANKSVILLE - Last month as a cache of dinosaur bones slowly emerged from Morrison formation sandstone near here, a big responsibility began to weigh on the small Illinois museum that unearthed this Jurassic-era treasure.
The Burpee Museum of Natural History not only found what many believe may be Utah's most significant Jurassic bone bed since the Cleveland-Lloyd outside Price. It is now wedded to a desolate spot halfway across the country from its home in Rockford, Ill., saddled with a strict obligation to manage thousands of bones in the best interests of science and the public. That means it must spend years excavating and processing specimens, and providing climate-controlled and secure storage, professional curation and access for scientists and the public.
"We went out with the expectation to find a few bones and we were blown away with what we found," museum director Alan Brown said. "I doubt we have 1 percent of the bones out. We will probably be out there for 50 years."
Burpee is one of about 10 museums, including three in Utah, currently excavating fossils in the state. Although many of the unearthed bones will leave Utah, the state's paleontologists are pleased with these museums' interest.
"We need this site done and 100 more like them," said Terry "Bucky" Gates, of the Utah Museum of Natural History, which is busy digging bones in the Grand Staircase. "The Cretaceous is barely touched in Utah. There are Morrison formation bones sticking out, eroding all over the place. If these other institutions don't come in . . . they will be destroyed and we won't have any data."
Before last week, few in Utah knew of the Burpee, which began developing a dinosaur collection several years ago. In 2001 in Montana's Hell Creek formation, Burpee crews found the toe bone that led to the recovery of the world's most complete juvenile tyrannosaurus specimen. "Jane" has since become the museum's centerpiece and it plans a $6 million expansion to display and store its growing dinosaur collection.
"It's like surfing. You stay on that board and ride the wave as long as you can," collections manager Scott Williams said.
The museum dispatched Williams to Utah to find a sauropod in Morrison formation, which has been reliably yielding these massive long-necked specimens for 100 years. Utah's first bone rush started when the Carnegie Museum of Natural History discovered a major Morrison bone bed outside Jensen. Industrialist Andrew Carnegie was looking for large paleontological specimens worthy of the Pittsburgh natural history museum established in 1895 with his steel-making wealth. On Aug. 17, 1909, Carnegie paleontologist Earl Douglass discovered several vertebrates from an apatosaurus emerging from an erosion cut. In the resulting excavation, thousands of bones were found. Between 1909 and 1922, Douglass shipped 700,000 pounds of bones and President Woodrow Wilson designated the site Dinosaur National Monument.
After Douglass, the University of Utah and Princeton University developed the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, which yielded 12,000 bones. The U. wound up with a good portion, but specimens have been distributed to 65 museums in 18 nations. It was the diaspora of the Cleveland-Lloyd bones that prompted a federal policy requiring all the bones recovered from a particular site go to the institution developing the site.
"If they are scattered you can't do your science," said Jim Kirkland, Utah state paleontologist. "Museums know that and that's why they want to keep collections together."
But doesn't the American public benefit from wide distribution of dinosaur bones?
"I'm a big fan of casts. We should make more replicas," Kirkland replied.
Accorded a puny budget for field work, Kirkland would like to see more out-of-state museums in Utah, home to the most complete fossil record of life in the world. Utah institutions have their hands full exploring Cedar Mountain formation in search of strange new Cretaceous-era dinosaurs. The prestigious, well-endowed museums - the Peabody, the Field, the Carnegie the American - have forsaken Utah in favor of China, Mongolia and Patagonia.
Kirkland maintains a laundry list of paleontological sites he would like to see developed and happily directs interested museums to them.
Last year, he sent the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County to federal land outside Blanding. Like so many other museums, it is expanding its dinosaur exhibitions in response to public demand and funding sources.
"We have found extraordinary things in our two seasons in San Juan County. The bone bed has a good portion of a diplodocus-like animal very nicely preserved," said Luis Chiappe, who heads the museum's Dinosaur Institute.
Kirkland is confident the Burpee has the resources and focus to develop the Hanksville site well.
"They have good scientists, good students, a beautiful facility. They are really collaborative and willing to take it to the next level," he said. "Utah's biggest problem is we don't have many places to keep these specimens. None of us have the resources to do it all."
Working in partnership with federal land managers, the Burpee wants to develop an interpretive center in Hanksville, educational programs and displays at the dig site.
"This is perfect for bringing out educators to give them hands-on experience in the field and take back to the classroom," Williams said during a tour of the site. He noted a cross section of a massive vertebrate conspicuously exposed in a sandstone block.
* Home: Rockford, Ill.
* History: Founded in 1942 as a Works Progress Administration project
* Description: The Burpee is comparable to the Utah Museum of Natural History in terms of its size and attendance, but has nowhere near the 1.2 million-specimen collection the Utah museum holds. Only in the past 10 years has it developed a dinosaur collection.
* Utah Museum of Natural History, University of Utah
* Monte Bean Life Sciences Museum, Brigham Young University
* Prehistoric Museum, College of Eastern Utah
* Museum of Ancient Life, Lehi
* Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, near Price
* Dinosaur National Monument (visitors center closed), near Vernal
* Frontier Museum, Monticello
* Utah Field House of Natural History, Vernal