Fossiling in Wyoming - (Back)
By Niels Laurids Viby
I am a Danish architect, and occasionally I get the chance to travel to different countries on study tours to look at buildings and get inspiration for the work we do back in Denmark and England (we have an office in London). In September 2006 I went to America, among other reasons to visit a new herbarium building in Saint Louis, Missouri. However, as I have been infected by that incurable disease which forces you to stop every time you pass any pile of rocks to look for fossils, I did not spend the available weekend in a big city prone to violence. Instead, I got on a plane and flew via Denver to Casper, Wyoming.
There was a good reason for going to that city: two years ago, I spent a week in Solnhofen, Germany during my summer holiday ‘chopping rocks’. Down there I meet another fossil enthusiast, an American who worked at the local geological museum in Casper. Therefore, it made sense for me to meet up with him and go fossil collecting in the nearby badlands.
It is important to remember that America is NOT Europe when it comes to fossil collecting. Even worse, every State has unique laws that you have to follow or else you are looking for trouble. In Wyoming, you have two possible situations:
1. You could be on State Land, and if you are not a member of an official museum at work, don’t even think about picking up a fossil. If confronted by the law, it will take time, be expensive and be thoroughly unpleasant.
2. You could be on Private Land, where every fossil belongs to the owner. And all the Ranchers drive around on small, beach buggy-like things equipped with a rifle in front – to shoot coyotes of course. However, given American laws, amateur fossil collectors may have a similar legal status as vermin. And remember, the word is “Rancher” with a capital “R” and not “farmer” with a small “f” - real men push cows around. They do NOT mess with vegetables down in the dirt. So be warned!
Therefore, to go anywhere to collect fossils, you need an American connection. And my friend had arranged that we - after some barter involving assorted alcoholic fluids - could go and look for fossils on Private Land.
But first a few words on Wyoming. This is one of the younger States and is far from being over populated. The two ‘big’ cities – Cheyenne and Casper – have a population of some 50,000 each; the city of Laramie contains some 30,000 people; and other human habitats range from the small to the very small. When you go into a town, a sign will tell you how small.
However, from the viewpoint of a fossil collector, Wyoming is a cornucopia of possibilities with an area that seems at
first sight, to be manageable. The problem in Wyoming is that you can cross the State with ease going from close to the northwest corner (that is the Yellowstone National Park) past Casper to the southeast corner on Interstate 25 and in principle, you could carry on through South America all the way down to Patagonia. But when you get off this road, things are very different. You can (close to the smaller towns) follow what we in Europe, would consider a small but decently-paved road for a short time. Then, you can carry on onto a strip of decent gravel roads, then bad gravel roads to the Rancher you want to visit – and from there on the going is on wheel tracks. In the end, you will often sit in the 4WD contemplating if you are on a real track or whether the ‘track’ is simply where the cows have a habit of walking. As for the geology, Wyoming includes the foothills of the
Rockies. Therefore, you can find virtually every single geological period from the Cambrian to the Palaeogene (up to and including the Holocene), with only a few exceptions. However, as I only had a weekend, I had to concentrate on formations that might contain the kind of fossils you see in museums and dream about finding yourself. So, after long debates over the internet, my friend and I focused on two formations and left out, for example the famous Green River Formation as that would have involved far too many hours of driving simply to get to and from one the accessible quarries.
The first day was spent on a ranch with Upper Cretaceous deposits: the Lance Formation of Maastrichtian age. This ranch was an interesting place. A couple of years ago, a partial
T-Rex was found not far from the house. That fossil ended up at a museum after the outlay of huge amounts of US dollars (much of which seemed to end up in the
pockets of lawyers). The problem in America is that dinosaur bones are worth serious amounts of money. Therefore, if you find
something big the Rancher will want it for himself. Often, he will have an arrangement with a fossil dealer who collects the cash from a future buyer.
Anyway, we spent the morning walking around quite close to the ranch looking for fossils and the odd rattler. Fortunately the rattle snakes up in Wyoming are rather small and have a poison more or less similar to a European viper - that is, not very much and not very strong. Generally, things that move close to your foot are only rabbits....
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