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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Guest Opinion

MOR relationship is good for Makoshika

Last month, the Museum of the Rockies came to Makoshika State Park to excavate a dinosaur that I had found weathering out of a hillside. When I first found it, I recognized it as part of a large horned triceratops. As usual when I find something of interest, I marked the location on GPS, took some photographs, and notified the museum. When MOR told me they were going to excavate my find I was excited and honored.  I know the hours, expense and resources it takes to properly excavate something as significant as this find. I was able to help with the excavation and it was truly exciting; we didn’t know exactly what we were going to find as we dug deeper into the hillside. Every time a new bone was exposed was incredible; we were the first people to see this dinosaur in millions of years. During the excavation, we collected important details about the rock the animal was buried in (this information is critical to learning more about ancient animals and how they lived – the bones themselves only tell part of the story.) With each bone that was uncovered, we got a clearer picture of what this animal was like and learned a little bit more about the deep history of Makoshika.

As someone who grew up in Glendive, the wonder and bewilderment of an 8 year old mind still lingers at the mere mention of the word “Makoshika!” I can still remember when my dad showed me my first dinosaur fossil in Makoshika State Park. I would eagerly watch television shows like “Land of the Lost” savoring every dinosaur scene.  My dad would then tell me stories of how these prehistoric creatures were as tall as my second story bedroom window. Our family would have outings in Makoshika often.  If my dad even mentioned the word “Makoshika” a cheer would erupt from each sibling like Pavlov’s dogs, and we would run to the station wagon. We LOVED exploring these badlands!  The Lion’s camp A frame is one of Makoshika’s gems.  Some of my best memories were church and group overnight trips there.  I’d often wander off exploring and hiking. Every time I did I would deal with repercussions from the adult in charge, and it was always worth it!  

  I remember finding my first fossil on my own.  It was a small peculiar piece with oblong circles along the top. Dad said, “Let’s go ask Dr. Hiatt what it is!”  Long time Glendive residents will never forget Dr. Hiatt. He had a boisterous laugh and an infectious zest for life, the town of Glendive, Makoshika and especially paleontology. The same day I found my fossil Dr. Hiatt happened to also be in the park.  Dad talked about him so much I thought he was a world-renowned paleontologist (it wasn’t until years later I found out he was an ophthalmologist.) It was like a little leaguer meeting Babe Ruth.  I showed him my fossil and Dr. Hiatt enthusiastically told me it was part of a crocodile!  A 66 million year old crocodile! I couldn’t fathom 66 million years old when I was a young kid, and I still can’t, but from then on I was hooked. I would continue to stay in contact with Dr. Hiatt and show him good finds from time to time. The last thing I remember him telling me before his passing was, “You are going to take over in Glendive where Greg Hagenston and I left off!”

When I was eighteen I met paleontologist Diane Gabriel, after whom a great Makoshika trail is named. I crept up gingerly, unannounced on my motorcycle where she and her crew were digging a triceratops.  I expected to be run off.  Instead, Diane welcomed me and answered my unlimited questions with enthusiasm.  In time, I would frequently show Diane locations of fossils I had found and in return I received her personal mentoring.  Diane was great for Glendive and Makoshika. The triceratops she excavated was reposited at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman where it could be cared for and studied. The skull of this triceratops is on display in the Makoshika visitor center now.

A couple months ago, Jason Stuart wrote a great article in the paper on how Glendive should become the next “Drumheller.” I’ve visited Drumheller in Alberta before and I thought the exact same thing! That town did it right! Drumheller celebrates the scientific importance and educational significance of the dinosaurs found in their surrounding hillsides. 

The entire week the museum crew (John Scannella and Bob Harmon were the whole crew!) listened to me go on and on about my visions of Glendive and Makoshika;  the excitement of working with MOR sparked idea after idea.  I know that a good relationship between MOR and our town can only increase the contribution that fossils from this area can make to our understanding of dinosaurs and their world, and lead to increased discoveries, research, outreach and education. This would only help the rest of the world understand just how special Makoshika is and facilitate commerce and generate money for the much-needed roads and water in Makoshika. 

Recently, there have been some misinformed letters to the editor of the Ranger Review that break my heart. One letter accuses: “When the Museum of the Rockies removes the fossilized remains from the park they are gone forever.”  This is exactly the opposite of what happens! Once exposed, the Montana weather destroys the fossils in a geological instant. I’ve seen it! Or fossils may fall into unauthorized hands and be lost. The MOR is a recognized repository for state and federal fossils;  they have the specialized tools and skilled preparators to care for these  important relics professionally. They are not gone forever.  Instead, they are skillfully cared for and studied, as was the case with the triceratops skull and Thescelosaurus currently on display at the Makoshika Visitors Center. When the MOR collects these fossils they do not become the property of the museum; they still belong to Montana State Parks. It is the MOR’s job to properly care for these fossils so that we can learn as much as possible about our past. Specimens that are curated in the MOR’s paleontology collections are available for research, education, and displays. More than 150,000 people visit the MOR every year, including many school groups filled with kids who like me might catch that spark of excitement about the planet that can fill a lifetime with discoveries and learning! Scientists from around the world also visit the museum every year to study the details of the dinosaur bones. I’m excited to see what might be discovered because of the triceratops that I found! 

The recent letters also tout a Cortez ideology of selling these precious relics to the highest bidder where they might land in some Hollywood living room, out of state, out of country, or who knows where. Then they are TRULY gone forever. What would be next? Should we sell the arrowheads and other artifacts? There is valuable scoria in Makoshika, should there be a scoria pit for profit? Maybe an oil well? Maybe Yellowstone Park should start a logging program? I’m all for much needed roads and park infrastructure, but please, do not let those roads lead through a park that has been prostituted to do so! Please Glendive, do not judge the MOR from these letters. I know from working with them this month that they only want to help Makoshika. By working with the MOR, many exciting discoveries can be made and these fossils can be properly cared for. The more we can learn about the ancient world of Makoshika, the more people from around the world will appreciate this park and the incredible fossils and other natural features it contains. The more people appreciate the park, the more we can preserve, protect and improve it. But this won’t happen if we sell off the things that make Makoshika special. We in Glendive, who are lucky enough to live so close to this amazing place, need to help ensure that the park and the many amazing fossils it contains can be cared for to the highest standards available. The Museum of the Rockies wants to help. Something as important as this takes time, but it’s worth it, and I am glad to be a part of what could be a new beginning for Makoshika. I think Dr. Hiatt and Diane Gabriel would feel the same way.

David Fuqua is an amateur paleontologist residing in Glendive. He is credited with discovering a triceratops recently excavated in Makoshika. 

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