A group of paleontologists exploring land around Utah's Bears Ears National Monument last year say they have found a rare cache of prehistoric fossils on an "extensive" site that as of this month is no longer protected as a national monument.
The researchers, who were working on a Bureau of Land Management grant, announced their discovery at the Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists annual conference last weekend.
The crocodile-like phytosaur dinosaur fossils were found in what the group of paleontologists said, "may be the densest area of Triassic period fossils in the nation, maybe the world."
"Based on our small, initial excavation, we believe that this 63-meter (69-yard) site may be the densest area of Triassic period fossils in the nation, maybe the world. If this site can be fully excavated, it is likely that we will find many other intact specimens, and quite possibly even new vertebrate species,” said Rob Gay, the group's leader.
However, the site in question sits in a precarious position for researchers. More than 1 million acres of land, which were once protected under a National Monument designation, no longer carry as many protections since the Trump administration opted to shrink the monument starting Feb. 2.
The researchers called the discovery of the fossils on the Utah site "extremely rare" and also announced that during the dig they found that a number of the fossils had been taken.
"It is extremely rare to find intact fossil skulls of specimens from this period,” said Gay. “It is rarer still to recover fossils that have been looted, which was the case with one specimen that was missing a portion of its skull. We did a little more digging before realizing this site had been looted by someone without a permit for this kind of fossil removal.”
One part of the fossil skull, later found, was taken from the excavation site in the years before Bears Ears was designated a national monument.
Scott Miller, a regional director for the Wilderness Society said the monument designation was established specifically to prevent such looting on public lands and said he fears that similar actions could take place now with the new discovery and lessened protections.
"While a discovery of this magnitude certainly is a welcome surprise, protecting such resources was the very purpose of Bears Ears National Monument,” Miller said in a blog post.
“That President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel faces double-edged sword with Alex Jones, Roger Stone Trump goes after Woodward, Costa over China Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves MORE acted to revoke protections for these lands is outrageous, and that he did so despite the Department of the Interior knowing of this amazing discovery is even more shocking," he continued. "I hope the courts will act quickly to restore protections for Bears Ears National Monument before any more fossils are looted from the area and lost to science.”
Interior officials have promised that the shrinking of the national monument designation at Bears Ears will still offer the publicly held land a number of protections under the law.