Skip to content

Chasing the fossil dealers

US President Barack Obama signed into law new measures to crack down on organized fossil dealers, shedding light on a murky business barely understood by the authorities meant to police it.

US President Barack Obama signed into law new measures to crack down on organized fossil dealers, shedding light on a murky business barely understood by the authorities meant to police it.

The Paleontological Resources Protection Act, signed on March 30th, will make it easier to prosecute those who remove fossils from US public lands.

The Yukon has its share of fossil thieves, according to local officials, who profit from snagging mammoth ivory tusks that rightfully belong to the Crown. Those same officials are reticent to enforce the territory’s Historical Resources Act, citing a lack of knowledge about the black market and an unwillingness to disturb the business of legitimate jewellers who sell mammoth ivory.

But that could all change as government agencies across the border find it less easy to ignore professional fossil dealers.

“(The trade) has increased a huge amount over the last 30 years,” said Scott Foss, from Salt Lake City, Utah. “It’s gone up just exponentially.”

Foss is a regional paleontologist for the US Bureau of Land Management in the heart of American dinosaur country. He’s also worked in Alberta, and knows the differences between how both countries deal with commercial fossil trading.

There is no data indicating how big the fossil trade is, but paleontologists speak from experience about an industry that was negligible just decades ago, said Foss.

“The trade of significant fossils is a commodity like any other commodity,” he said. “So with the development of the internet and communication and a more global economy, the trade itself has increased.”

It’s gone from a hobby to a viable business venture, sold much like art and antiquities, said Foss.

“People didn’t used to make a living selling rare dinosaur fossils,” he said.

Not only does the trade have the tools to go global, human beings are trekking into the backcountry like never before.

Areas that used to be extremely remote or rarely visited are now open to people with off-road vehicles. Also, energy companies have driven more roads into the wilderness, said Foss.

Mammoth ivory is especially vulnerable to the increased human footprint.

“Ivory is very sensitive to climate change,” said Foss. “So with global warming, the ivory that’s been safe in the Arctic is now going to start falling apart too, simply because ivory is a very finicky material.”

Whitehorse jewelers sell carved ornaments made from mammoth ivory that comes from both the US and Canada.

“We actually get ours from a local supplier, Bill Diment, who produces it on his own,” said Pam Cayford, manager of Midnight Sun Gallery And Gifts.

Diment’s father also carved mammoth ivory, and Queen Elizabeth has even received some of his work.

Murdoch’s Gem Shop mostly carries carved ivory items from the United States.

“Our main source comes out of Washington State and I believe his mammoth ivory comes from Alaska,” said Jan Owen, vice-president of Maximilian’s Corporation, which owns Murdoch’s.

“We do not carry any raw ivory, strictly to stay away from any new laws in place,” said Owen. “We choose to stay away from that portion, so we just get it from carvers and other businesses that retail it.”

The Yukon can legally transfer ownership of ivory to individuals who either carve it here or export it raw. That approach mirrors the one used in Alberta, which allows companies to legally export ammonite fossils, an ancient and extinct mollusk.

In the proper geological conditions, the fossils turn into a colorful and brilliant stone. The Corite Corporation mines the fossil in southwestern Alberta.

They’ve branded the gemstone “ammolite” and sell it like other organic material is sold as a commodity, such as amber and pearls.

“It’s sold internationally as a gemstone and it almost comes exclusively from southwestern Alberta,” said Foss. “There are two big sites in the US, but we haven’t accepted the mining claims (companies) have put on them.”

“They’ve tried to put mining claims on ammonite as a precious gemstone, and we’ve said no, it’s a fossil resource and we don’t accept it as a mining claim.”

Ammonite is one of the few examples in Alberta law where a fossil found on public land can be transferred to private ownership, said Dan Spivak, resource manager at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta.

“That’s way more common than mammoth ivory, and we do the same thing with petrified wood, plant leaf impressions and oyster shell,” said Spivak.

There’s a small oyster shell mine in Alberta that sells its fossils for chicken feed, he said.

“As far as I know, there isn’t enough mammoth ivory found in Alberta on a yearly basis to make it a viable industry,” he said. “So we’ve never been approached to put that into our control list of items that we can dispose of.”

Alberta does charge and prosecute individuals who try and sell dinosaur bones without permission, said Spivak.

“You hear stories where people will find dinosaur bones that are laying on the surface that they will try to sell on eBay,” he said.

“There was one person, six or seven years ago, and he was charged with excavating ammonite shell,” he said. “He wasn’t charged with selling the material, but for excavating it.”

Another dealer was caught excavating dinosaur bones in Grande Prairie three or four years ago, said Spivak.

“They had the misfortune of doing it on a day where we had a field crew in the area who happened to have a camera in hand,” he said.

“We’re not an enforcement agency by any stretch, so there’s not much we can do other than write letters to people,” said Spivak. “If it seems serious enough, we’ll get the RCMP involved because they’re really the enforcement side of things when it comes to historical resources.

“But normally, when someone is told what they are doing is illegal, they will pull the item off eBay or what have you.”

The United States is different because a fossil found on private land belongs to the land owner—instead of all fossils belonging to the government. The new Paleontological Resources Preservation Act will consolidate the enforcement powers of the three federal agencies that take care of federal public land—the Bureau of Land Management, the US Parks Service and the US Forestry Service.

“It’s very difficult to find, to prosecute and to know what actions are going on underground,” said Foss. “However, the act was passed in response to federal agencies needing a unified law and a unified authority to manage fossil resources.”

There used to be some ambiguity to how much the agencies should preserve rather than exploit fossils, he said.

“The theft of a significant fossil resource under the (new act) is going to be a pretty uniform, similar event under any of (the agencies),” said Foss.

“What the bill is essentially going after are the organized dealers who are collecting with the intent to defraud the people of the United States with a valuable specimen that belongs to them.”

“The new law does set up new felony violations, especially for people who are organized and know they’re stealing, and who know they will profit by stealing from the people of the US.

“It will be a fairly serious felony offence.”

Paleontologists aren’t certain how many dinosaurs are being lost to commercial trading and private collections, said Foss.

“In some ways we’re very concerned about running out of (fossils,) and in other ways we haven’t even begun to discover what’s out there,” he said.

Mammoth ivory, found mostly in the Yukon, Alaska and Siberia, is one fossil to be concerned about.

“Mammoth ivory is one of these things where it’s fairly recent in the geological record, which means its fairly near the surface,” said Foss. “And you’re going to run out of mammoth ivory before you run out of other things.”

Contact James Munson at