CHIEFTAIN PHOTOS/JAMES AMOS
Fossils unearthed near Picket Wire Canyonlands
By JAMES AMOS
THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN
PICKET WIRE CANYONLANDS - Volunteers are helping to dig the fossils of what used to be called a Brontosaurus out of the side of a canyon hill here.
It's hard work, sweaty and slow-paced, but hey, they get to help dig up dinosaur bones, right?
"I love it," said John Frazier, a young guy who's here with his uncle on the weeklong dig. "Sometimes I do digging. Sometimes I do plaster. Sometimes I help shoot the transit."
The volunteers are here, many of them for several years now, under the U.S. Forest Service's Passport In Time program. The program allows volunteers from around the country to sign up for weeklong stints and help with various projects, and in this case, helping to wrap plaster around the giant vertebra fossil of a long-dead Apatosaurus.
Bill Ramsey, who lives in California, is helping Forest Service Paleontologist Barb Beasley wrap the giant fossils. The group has exposed several of them from the ground, laying on top of a layer of hard sandstone.
The fossils are wrapped with three layers of burlap soaked in liquid plaster to protect them on their journey to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
Bruce Schumacher, the Forest Service paleontologist in charge of the dig, said the fossils will be the first from an Apatosaurus found in Colorado to be housed at the museum. Two other Apatosaurs have been found in the state, but they were taken to other museums.
The biggest fossil so far has been a 7-foot long shoulder blade, Schumacher said. That may be cleaned and displayed at the museum to show visitors just how large the animal was.
The animal's hip bones and larger vertebra have been found, and one leg bone, the paleontologist said. The neck vertebra extend into the hillside, so the project will continue for a few more years to see if the whole neck can be found, perhaps with a skull.
Schumacher thinks the animal was buried here when it was it washed up on a bend in the Purgatoire River, millions of year ago. It seems that scavengers feasted on the carcass, he said, because he and the volunteers have found 35 teeth shed by meat-eating dinosaurs around the bones.
"And a lot of the bones have bite marks and tooth scrapes," he said.
Legs from the animal are missing, which also is consistent with it being scavenged.
The site was found in 2004 by volunteer Wes McCraven on a survey trip. It's called the Last Chance Site because it was on the last part of the last day of the trip that McCraven found a fragment of bone on a hillside, leading him to the site further up the hill.
Many of the volunteers digging at the site have come back each fall and spring for a week of work for several years, according to Schumacher.
LeRoy Frazier, a meatcutter from Fowler and John's uncle, has been one of the regular volunteers. This is his fourth year, he said, sitting on the ground and picking a layer of mudstone off of more fossils.
A short distance away Carol McClure also sits on the ground, picking off bits of mudstone with a small hook. She lives in La Junta, and like many of the others, got involved after meeting Schumacher.
She's been digging here two weeks a year for five years, she said. When she finds a piece of fossil, she gently picks around it to unearth it, and glues delicate crumbling parts back together with Super Glue.
She said she got interested in paleontology when she found what she thought was a piece of dinosaur bone near La Junta years ago.
Her kids "all laughed at me and said, 'Mom found an old horse bone!'" she said.
Turns out it was a piece of a pre-historic fish called Plesiasaurs, she said.
"And that got me hooked," she said.
The volunteers at the dig, about a dozen in all, camp at the nearby Rourke Ranch bunkhouse during their sessions. The Forest Service provides a cook, but the volunteers all chip in for the food.
McClure said the group has become close during the years of sun and dirt.
"They're all volunteers," she said, "and they all want to be here."
Schumacher said the dig site will be active for several more years to come. And when it's done, there will likely be others. Volunteers also help find other archeological sites, and the Picket Wire Canyonlands are an awfully big place in which to look.
"We're finding more sites all the time," he said.