Paleontology of Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

This is a guest post to the PLOS Paleontology Community by guest blogger Robert Gay. Rob is the Curator of Education at the Museum of Western Colorado, and also frequently contributes to the blog Prehistoric Pub. He can be found on Twitter @Paleorob. Thank you, Rob, for contributing to the PLOS Paleo Community! The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily shared by PLOS or PLOS Paleo. 

On December 28th, 2016, then-President Barack Obama, acting under the authority delegated to him by the Antiquities Act of 1906, created Bears Ears National Monument (BENM), located in southeastern Utah, United States. The impetus for BENM came from a coalition of numerous Native American tribes with prehistoric and historic cultural ties to the region. Indeed, the raison d’état for this monument was generally presented as a way to safeguard nationally significant cultural heritage from ongoing looting and damage, as well as to maintain the strong connection of modern tribes to the continuing cultural significance to the land.

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Outline of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, highlighted in green. Image courtesy Bureau of Land Management, Public Domain

Bears Ears National Monument is big. Really big. At 1.35 million acres, it is one of the largest such protected areas within the United States. Spanning a stretch of rugged southeastern Utah from the San Juan River to the soaring slopes of the Abajo Mountains, the Monument takes in a wide range of geography. Even the detractors of the BENM proposal, like members of Utah’s congressional delegation Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, agreed that the area was special, significant to local tribes, and needed to be protected. But there was something else that had gone unmentioned by both sides of the issue: the startling naked geology on display in the BENM area and surrounding lands provides an astonishing look into the Late Paleozoic and Early Mesozoic eras. The paleontological resources of the area are staggering, and yet just barely beginning to be explored systematically. The lack of any specific protections for paleontology would seriously hurt the science. Without explicit recognition of the paleontological value of the lands, whether in the form of a National Conservation Area (NCA) or a National Monument, paleontologists would have a difficult time continuing ongoing research and obtaining new permits to work within the region.

As a paleontologist who works on Upper Triassic rocks in the region, this was concerning to me. As time went on I realized that my polite mentions on social media about the importance of paleontology to the region were getting nowhere. No one else was speaking out on the issue; if something was going to be done it looked like I needed to step up and do it myself. I made a nuisance of myself; I visited town hall meetings, conservation meetings, wrote representatives, and finally was approached by several conservation groups to address the paleontological significance of BENM. I was disheartened that none of the politicians on the side working towards an NCA (against a National Monument) ever contacted me back, though they were in contact with several other paleontologists. The final NCA language, presented in Rob Bishop’s bill, “Utah’s Public Lands Initiative,” essentially ignored the advice of those scientists who were consulted, however.

An area within Bears Ears National Monument, photograph courtesy Sarah Gibson.

One thing that seemed to surprise both the conservation groups working towards a National Monument and the agencies in Washington D.C. is the sheer amount of paleontological resources present within BENM. I compiled a bibliography of fossil resources in the Monument area and the number of peer-reviewed and publicly presented abstracts, guidebooks, and field trip guides overwhelmed the folks tasked with analyzing the non-cultural resources of the area. One such person even commented to me that the combined geological and paleontological bibliographies of the BENM area were more extensive than those for the cultural aspects. This may be due to a publishing lag in archaeology, but is nonetheless impressive considering the monument was proclaimed for those cultural resources.

The paleontological resources of BENM are special in that they are not concentrated on a single portion of geological time. The boom of paleontological research in nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM), proclaimed 20 years earlier, has almost exclusively focused on its Late Cretaceous animals. In BENM, at least three distinct and important slices of time are represented in the rock record.

Several areas within the Monument preserve amazing Paleozoic fossils, showing ecosystem turnover from the Carboniferous into the Permian. Lobe-finned and ray-finned fish, large amphibians similar to Eryops, and relatives of the fin-backed Dimetrodon are present in deposits from both the southern and northern edges of BENM. The Valley of the Gods, in the southern portion of BENM, has many of these interesting fossil deposits that shed light on some of the evolutionary transitions between these groups, while further north at Indian Creek, Upper Permian rocks show how terrestrial life diversified in the time before the devastating End-Permian Extinction Event.

The second major geological slice of time has been the focus of much of my research in and around the Bears Ears region for more than a decade. This is the Triassic–Jurassic boundary, the time that saw dinosaurs go from minor components of terrestrial ecosystems to being the dominant form of life on land. Not only have I been focusing my work on this region and time period for a while, but others are very active in research within and around BENM looking at this same group of rocks. Teams from the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site and the Natural History Museum of Utah are looking at the Triassic–Jurassic boundary in Indian Creek and Beef Basin to the west, to tie in with earlier work done to the northeast near Moab. My work since 2013–2014 has focused on Comb Ridge and more recently Fry Canyon. Joint teams from Appalachian State University and the Museum of Moab are beginning to work in Red Canyon, an area just barely excluded from the Monument’s boundaries, that was initially explored in the 1970s and 1980s. A group from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLA) is gearing up to do work within the monument as well, also looking at this same rock unit. Within the last decade, this relatively unknown portion of the Chinle, Wingate, and Kayenta formations has gone from neglected to the subject of intense and systematic surveys. New taxa from across the vertebrate tree of life are being uncovered and described, helping to fill in crucial gaps in our paleobiogeographical map of the Late Triassic Period.

Partial skeleton of Seitaad ruessi, a saurupodomorph from BENM, from Sertich and Loewen (2010), CC-BY.

The third geological span of time that has started to yield important fossils is the Late Jurassic Morrison Formation. Ubiquitous for its grey-blue striped badlands across the American West, the Morrison Formation is well studied and has yielded some of the most iconic dinosaurs ever named. Animals such as ApatosaurusAllosaurusBrontosaurusBarosaurusCeratosaurus, and Stegosaurus were originally named from this rock group elsewhere in the West. But in BENM, little work has been done in this formation. Initial surveys, conducted with joint crews from the Bureau of Land Management and Utah Geological Survey, turned up numerous looted fossil sites, with bones smashed, destroyed, and stolen. This section of the Morrison Formation has never been formally surveyed; it is unknown what data have been lost by this poaching. All that is known for sure is that data have been lost. Considering the unexplored nature of those outcrops (and the fundamentally different nature of the Morrison itself in BENM – something brought to my attention by Utah State Paleontologist Jim Kirkland) it would be unsurprising if novel taxa or occurrences of organisms had been looted. Hopefully strong work in the region by Monument law enforcement, coupled with renewed efforts by the Utah Geological Survey and the NHMLA, will both halt damage and begin to expand our knowledge of the Late Jurassic on the margins of the large salt lake and playa that existed just to the south, 152 million years ago.

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Grallator track from Comb Ridge, within BENM. From Gay et al (in review), CC-BY.















This isn’t to say that other fossil resources are not present. Fossil traces are found in both the Permian Cedar Mesa Sandstone and the Early Jurassic Navajo Sandstone. Pleistocene megafauna and microfauna both have been recovered from atop Cedar Mesa. And the Cretaceous Burro Canyon Formation has yielded important fossils from just outside the Monument boundaries. The above is to highlight the major work that has been done in the monument already.

After compiling evidence, I also enlisted the help of our professional society, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP). Through the Society’s Government Affairs Committee (and eventually through the Executive Committee), my colleagues and I could draft up a letter to the administration supporting strong protection for the fossil resources in the Bears Ears area. This, along with the bibliographies, summaries, and in-person visits to Washington D.C., made the case overwhelming in support of paleontology. Once both conservation groups and the land management agencies in Washington D.C. realized the significance of the fossil resources of the then-proposed Monument, it was only a matter of deciding wording and boundaries. I have covered elsewhere the problems of including areas with little scientific documentation, but I am proud to say that a fair portion of the monument’s proclamation language came from the executive summary and other documents I provided to the administration.

As the readers are probably well aware, since Bears Ears National Monument was proclaimed, there have been serious pushbacks, from both local groups and Utah politicians. Representative Chaffetz introduced a bill in late January that would have ‘disposed’ of thousands of acres of BLM-administered land within San Juan County alone. This land was tagged in the bill’s supporting documents as having paleontological resources, the only-such mention for any county covered under the bill. Although Chaffetz later withdrew the bill under protest from both Utahns and others from across the country, its accompanying legislation, H.R. 622 would abolish the BLM’s law enforcement wing. Considering the looting of sites in Bears Ears National Monument, such a move would completely undermine the protections that BENM is supposed to have in place for these resources. More insidious is the Utah Legislature passing a resolution asking President Donald Trump to ‘undo’ BENM, along with shrinking GSENM. The current legal opinion is that the President lacks the authority to do so. Then-President Obama was acting under the authority delegated to him by congress in the Antiquities Act. As such, any authority not explicitly delegated to the Office of the President is implied to be retained by the Congress. Legal tests of other presidential decisions have supported this interpretation of the law. Having said that, however, it is clear that Utah’s congressional delegation (especially Representatives Bishop and Chaffetz) have no problem introducing bills to reduce, undercut, or eliminate public lands programs. The Utah Legislature’s move may in fact be a sign to these representatives that introducing a bill to Congress to eliminate BENM and slash the size of GSENM is expected of them. There have been some repercussions to the State of Utah’s stance, however. The economically important Outdoor Retailer Show, held every year in Salt Lake City, has lost two major retailers in the space of a week (Patagonia, followed quickly by Arc’teryx). Additionally, a town hall meeting held by Chaffetz was overflowing with BENM supporters, to his apparent surprise. It seems likely at this point that the designation of BENM will end up in court and it seems likely that science, especially paleontology, may end up playing a role in whether BENM remains a going concern or whether it vanishes the way of Fossil Cycad National Monument. Either way, the story is not over yet.

For more information about coalitions supporting BENM, and how you can get involved, follow the links below: – Robert Gay will be speaking about Bears Ears Paleo at the annual Celebrate Cedar Mesa meeting March 3–5! Find more information on their website!


Featured image: The “Bears Ears” of Bears Ears National Monument. Image published by Bureau of Land Management, CC The Bears Ears16