Skeletons in Their Closet

The feds had a bone to pick with this fossil-hunting family.

Convinced that Wyoming was in the grip of a fossil-poaching epidemic, Rogers began recruiting other government agencies to join the fight. The idea of saving dinosaurs captured the imagination of many law enforcement types, and in the past five years Rogers has worked with the BLM, the FBI, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Wyoming National Guard, the Wyoming Land Board, the state police and the U.S. Attorney's office. Rogers called the campaign Operation Rock Fish, after the most common fossils buried in the area's distinctive soil.

For anyone interested in stealing fossils, southwestern Wyoming is an excellent place to start. The Green River Formation is one of the most concentrated veins of fossils in the world. Created fifty million years ago when three great lakes receded from what is now Wyoming, Utah and northwestern Colorado, the formation today is a vast dirt lasagne made up of layers of laminated limestone, mudstone and volcanic ash, and packed with traces of ancient life. Most of the fossils are fish, although plants, a few birds, snails, turtles, crocodiles and one bat have been uncovered, too.

Paleontologists became aware of the area's importance early on, and the Green River Formation has been studied by scientists and researchers since about 1870. It wasn't too long after that that rock and fossil enthusiasts began showing up. The commercial prospectors dug their own quarries, mining the area for treasures they could later sell to private collectors and museums.

The Green River Formation remains a mecca for rock hounds. It is home to Fossil Butte National Monument, a twenty-year-old protected park of Hush-Puppy-colored buttes, scrub sagebrush and desert shrubs. Kemmerer, the closest town, lies about 25 miles east of the Utah border. It is lined with rock shops hawking local fossils for sale, and each summer the town hosts the Fossil Festival in Herschler Triangle Park.

Despite the area's long history of prehistoric prospecting, the rules covering who can dig fossils from public lands have recently been reinterpreted. Rogers and his platoon of government agencies began cracking down on people who scavenge fossils off federal property only within the past five years. Until then, many collectors worked without any attention from the government; at times they actually enjoyed the help of local rangers. So the anti-fossiling push caught many people off guard.

Gael Hebdon has been in the fossil-digging business for two decades, ever since she quit her job in the Carter White House and escaped to western Wyoming. She took the first work she could find, as a sheepherder for a man who fossiled on the side--a hobby shared by nearly everyone in the area. She later married her boss. The Hebdons gave up on the sheep, but they now mine several quarries full-time.

"Up until very recently, digging fossils on public land was allowed," Gael explains. "The Green River Formation has been written up in guides and rock-hounding books as a place where people can go to dig. People have been doing it for years and years because their fathers and grandfathers did it. And the government never did anything about it."

Now the authorities appear to be making up for lost time, and Operation Rock Fish has been aggressive in its pursuit of suspected poachers. In addition to the time and effort of dozens of state and federal agents, Sergeant Rogers has called in helicopters and airplanes to assist him. He has organized stake-outs, orchestrated stings and employed sophisticated police tools such as motion-detectors and video cameras to bring the criminals to justice.

"We have devoted hundreds and hundreds of hours to this--gathering intelligence, establishing informants, tracking down suspects," Rogers says.

The cases are complicated and the investigations unlike any other police work Rogers had done. "I'll tell you what," he says. "I wish I had listened a whole lot better in college geology." Once investigators track down a fossil that they suspect is illegal, they must then try to match it to the soils found on federal lands. Thanks largely to the recent push against commercial fossilers, the FBI now employs its own sedimentologist.

"The small private collector is not our target here," Rogers continues. "We're looking for the illegal commercial collector. The illegal commercial fossil business is a multi-million-dollar business. We've tracked stolen fossils to twelve different countries."

All of this activity in a place better known for cattle than crime has made Rogers himself something of a celebrity. He has been the subject of newspaper and magazine articles. Two months ago he appeared on national television as the star of a National Geographic Explorer documentary about fossil poaching.

Using hidden cameras, the show followed Rogers from his office to a Tucson fossil-buying show, then back to Kemmerer. The climax of the film occurred in a Cheyenne parking lot, where, in a carefully orchestrated sting attended by an assistant United States attorney, the sergeant confronted a suspected poacher after the man delivered a beautiful mounted stingray fossil that Rogers had arranged to buy. "It's like a child returning home," Rogers said upon recovering the piece.

Tall, ramrod straight and sporting the stern and chiseled features that all pilots seem to have, Rogers was very photogenic. Unfortunately, the show was a sham.

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