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A woman works with a fossil
Kate Johnson, a volunteer with the Western Interior Paleontological Society, cleans mud from a tibia bone of a sauropod dinosaur on Jan. 27 in Cañon City. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

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His quest for a geode took Chad McCarty into the hills of Fremont County a mere five months after he moved to Colorado.

He was drawn to the state from his native Florida because the geological diversity would allow him to better pursue his passion of rockhounding.

But on this October day something else caught his attention — something that looked like bone. He dug around it a bit, enough to determine that it was a bone. And a large one at that.

“Then I covered it up and continued to look for geodes, because that’s what I was focused on that day,” said McCarty, a 31-year-old Colorado Springs bartender who is working toward pursuing his metal sculpture art full time.

He returned three times to dig around the bone.

A path is marked with rocks on each side
A “People and Places Trail” at Pueblo Community College’s Fremont campus guides hikers along a geological journey of local discoveries. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“It was a bonding experience,” he said with a wide smile. “Part of me wanted to keep it. It would look great on my mantle. But my conscience wouldn’t let me do that.”

He called the Bureau of Land Management and reported his discovery.

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Attention to Colorado’s outdoor recreation often focuses on the well-known attractions such as skiing and snowboarding, rafting, hunting and fishing, mountain biking and mountain climbing. 

But there is a subculture of rockhounds and fossil hunters who hike all corners of the state in search of a particular rock, mineral, gem or fossil to add to their collection. They mostly are hobbyists with no malicious intent, and they generally know the rules of what they can and cannot take from public lands, said Joshua Broussard, paleontologist for the BLM and the city of Cañon City.

Although there is apparently no running list of fossil discoveries in Colorado, state BLM spokeswoman Brittany Sprout said they’ve come to expect one or two significant discoveries each year.

Geology clubs may own or lease a tract of land where their members can dig around at will, or rockhounds often pay a fee to search on private lands, said Cindy Smith, a Cañon City resident and member of the Western Interior Paleontological Society, or WIPS. 

Two women work to clean a fossil.
Kate and Brenda Johnson, volunteers with the Western Interior Paleontological Society, clean a tibia bone of a sauropod dinosaur using water and acetone on Jan. 27 in Cañon City. The lower-leg tibia and fibula bones, estimated to be 150-170 million years old, were recently discovered by a hiker looking for geodes who reported them to the BLM. The fossils will be kept at the museum, which is a designated federal repository. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Usually, that involves a contract that says any significant find belongs to the landowner, because some gems and fossils are worth thousands of dollars. 

For example, an iguanodon discovered in 2019 in Moffat County in northwestern Colorado, was purchased and restored by Italian paleontologists and auctioned off in October in Paris for 673,240 euros (about $732,000 at today’s exchange rate). The bones were discovered on private land not far from Dinosaur National Monument, one of several areas in the state that are known to be rich in fossils.

It is illegal to take vertebrate fossils from public lands, which is why legitimate commercial collectors and auction houses insist on evidence to show where a fossil such as the iguanodon was found. 

The BLM allows limited collecting of such things as rocks and plant fossils from its lands for personal use, but officials always suggest that hikers and rockhounds check the rules before removing anything. 

“There’s a lot of animosity between commercial collectors and scientists,” said Brenda Johnson, a Denver WIPS volunteer. She suggested that more collaboration among all the players — museums, academia, commercial operations, and state, federal and local officials — is the best way to ensure that unique specimens that advance scientific research find their way into the public domain.

A close up look at a fossil.
Cracks are seen within the fibula bone of a sauropod dinosaur on Jan. 27 at the Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center in Cañon City. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
A woman grabs one of the fossils.
An astragalus and calcaneus bone, found near the site, are believed to be able to indicate the genus and potentially the species of the sauropod, which cannot be classified from the tibia or fibula alone. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“We don’t find the bulk of things,” Johnson said. “It’s ordinary citizens who are just out hiking or whatever. And if things aren’t collected, they just erode away and are lost forever.”

That’s why the story of McCarty’s discovery and the collaboration and educational opportunities that have ensued have excited so many people.  

When the call from McCarty came in, Broussard was on his day off but he “went out there, just to see.”

It was real, and it was significant. An intact tibia, likely from a sauropod, or long-necked herbivore dinosaur. 

But it was late October with winter just around the corner, and a real potential for theft or damage to the exposed bone.

“I didn’t think we should just let it sit there through the winter,” he said.

Under a veil of secrecy — or at least as much secrecy as is possible when a half-dozen organizations, interns, volunteers and local and federal officials are involved — a hasty salvage operation was launched.

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science secured the permit to excavate the bone from BLM land and sent interns to help with the field work. As they began the tedious work of loosening the dirt and rock around the bone to wrest it from the earth, Broussard discovered a second bone — a fibula — lying next to it. The stakes doubled.

A woman uses a brush to clean a fossil.
While still in the field, the bones were “jacketed”, or layered with 3-4 coats of plaster and burlap in order for the fossils to maintain their rigidity for transport. A cast saw is used to separate the plaster from the bone before mud and debris is cleaned off. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Once much of the bones were exposed, the team covered them with plaster to prevent cracking and breaking when they attacked the rock and dirt beneath them, until they could flip the bones onto the plastered side. Then they plastered the bottom so the entire legs and the mud around them, each weighing about 100 pounds, could be moved.

While scouring the excavation site, the team found two more bones — the astragalus, or ankle bones, Smith said. They did not find the calcaneum, also an ankle bone but what would have been a rarer find.

Meanwhile, officials were deciding where the bones would go to be cleaned, examined and displayed. Because the Denver Museum had the permit they could’ve gone there, but Broussard and others suggested that they remain in Fremont County at the Royal Gorge Regional Museum.

The Cañon City museum has been a federal repository for fossils since 2004, but this was the most significant find since it earned that designation, museum director Lisa Studts said.

The Denver museum and BLM concurred and Studts soon found herself figuring out how to create a temporary paleontology lab.

“We don’t have a permanent lab,” she said, noting however that the nearly 100-year-old former city hall had been constructed with concrete floors so weight wasn’t an issue. “This is something that is new for us. We’re getting in touch with volunteers so we can allow patrons and visitors to witness how fossil preparators go about their work.” 

A colorful dinosaur statue stands on the sidewalk.
Over a dozen different dinosaur statues are distributed throughout Cañon City, historically a rich region for the discovery of dinosaur bones. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The city of Cañon City, which runs the museum, and the Friends of the Museum chipped in money and supplies. The museum maintenance staff built a sturdy wooden lab bench on wheels to accommodate work on the two huge bones. It was rolled into place in the community room, surrounded by carts and tables with needed supplies.

Soon the bones, swathed in plaster and covered with a blue cloth, rested on that table and awaited their public debut.

Only McCarty and a handful of excavators had seen the bones before they were plastered. A few pictures of bones after partial excavation were released along with an invitation for the public to witness the unveiling at the museum on a cold Saturday morning, Jan. 21. About a hundred people were lined up outside the door when the museum, which has free admission and attracted about 5,000 visitors in all of 2022, opened at 10 a.m.

As 7-year-old Logan Steinhauser of Colorado Springs said, “I want to see the dinosaur bones.” He and his 5-year-old brother launched into sharing their dinosaur knowledge; they each have earned paleontology badges through the National Park Service and last summer visited the Smithsonian. 

The drive from Colorado Springs to see newly discovered dinosaur bones was nothing. Others came from Denver or Pueblo. Many came from Cañon City or nearby Fremont County towns.

Within the first hour, more than 400 visitors had come to see the bones. Others watched on Facebook live as the plaster was stripped away.

That, Studts and others said, is exactly what they’d hoped for when they sought permission to keep the bones at the local museum.

A crowd of people look at the fossil.
Eugene Madril, 6, of Denver, talks to Brenda Johnson of the Western Interior Paleontological Society on Jan. 21, 2023, about dinosaur bones unveiled at the Royal Gorge Regional Museum. Eugene came to the event with his parents, Jennifer and Matthew Madril of Denver. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)
A crowd stands behind rope to look at the fossil.
Chad McCarty, 31 left, of Colorado Springs, stands amid the crowd of people waiting to see dinosaur bones unveiled on Jan. 21.2023, at the Royal Gorge Regional Museum. McCarty discovered the bones while hiking in Fremont County in October. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Historically, we’ve been finding fossils in the area since the 1870s,” she said. “Most of those have been shipped off to other museums — the Smithsonian, the Peabody, Cleveland, Denver. These we get to keep.”

Indeed, the Garden Park Fossil Area and the Indian Springs Trace fossil area are both National Natural Landmarks. Garden Park produced a trove of dinosaur bones during excavation work in the 1870s, including complete allosaurus, ceratosaurus and 

stegosaurus skeletons that are on display at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, according to a Fremont County Heritage Guide, “Rocks & Fossils of Fremont County Colorado.” Dinosaur tracks also grace the rocky sandstone wall near the top of Skyline Drive.

“We want people to become knowledgeable about that rich history,” Smith said. “Keeping the bones here will help us do that. Many of the people in the community now don’t know about it. They can take pride in this and help protect the land.”

And the fossils yet to be discovered.

A couple dozen children crowded along the roping that held the public about 3 feet from the new lab bench, their eyes laser focused as the technicians cut through the plaster to reveal the bones.

McCarty had been introduced to a loud round of applause, and he was assisting Broussard with the fibula. WIPS volunteers worked on the tibia. When the plaster came off, the wide-eyed youngsters grinned and applauded — along with the hundreds of adults in the room.

For the next few hours the crowd filed between the roping and table, taking photos and asking questions. More people arrived at the museum to take a look. No one rushed and the volunteers were eager to talk about how dinosaur bones are prepared. How to tell the dirt from bone. How to harden the cracks to keep the bone from falling apart.

A woman works to clean a fossil.
Brenda Johnson, a volunteer with the Western Interior Paleontological Society, brushes mud from a tibia bone of a sauropod dinosaur on Jan. 27 in Cañon City. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

McCarty floated through the room as people sought to shake his hand and thank him for reporting his discovery.

“He did the right thing,” BLM spokesman Levi Spellman said. “This benefits our community and our knowledge. We get a lot more out of it as a society.”

McCarty said he started rockhounding in Florida about six years ago and it became a passion. He said he’d hiked in Fremont County a few times before he discovered the bone because it’s known as a great place to find rocks and minerals, but he was only vaguely aware of the fossil history.

“This is the best day of my life,” he said as he surveyed the room full of people marveling at the bones.

Better than the day he discovered the tibia?

He paused thoughtfully.

“Yes,” he said. “When I found the bone I was kind of in shock. The reality of what I’d found didn’t sink in until today. This is making it all real.”

When he’s not working on metal sculptures at the Manitou Art Center, he’ll return to Fremont County to check on those bones, as well as for more rockhounding.

“I still haven’t found a geode.”

SEE THE WORK: The public can watch the volunteer preparators work on the bones from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays at the Royal Gorge Regional Museum, 612 Royal Gorge Blvd., Cañon City. Admission is free. The work is expected to continue for at least two months.

Sue McMillin

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @suemcmillin