Budget cuts led the park to announce last week that it will shave two of three paleontologists from the rolls. It's the latest blow to a program that already had to close its most popular attraction, an embankment of exposed dinosaur fossils inside a condemned building.
Budgetary times are tough, and visitation is down 30 percent. Some paleontologists worry that the cuts will erode a core mission and possibly endanger some of the world's most famous bones.
"They're cutting out the heart of the paleo program," said Margaret Imhof, a private contracting paleontologist in Vernal.
Other scientists, including Utah's state paleontologist and the former curator of the Utah Field House of Natural History, fear that the losses could endanger many fossils slated for moving to a still unbuilt storage center in Vernal. The two departing employees are the same people who have packed the fossils.
The National Park Service, though, considers this a chance to streamline and increase cooperation with university and museum researchers. Dan Chure will remain as coordinating paleontologist and will build partnerships beyond the monument while also caring for the fossils, monument superintendent Mary Risser said.
"I have a lot of confidence in his ability to work with those fossils when they're at the new facility," she said.
The Park Service also is working to rebuild and reopen the center exhibiting fossils in the exposed earth, Risser said.
The monument has a budget of about $3 million and already has cut $700,000 in personnel costs, Risser said.
"The paleontology program is the last place where we have some duplication of effort," she said.
Outside observers don't see the positions as overlapping. One of the jobs requires specialization in fieldwork and fossil preparation, while the other involves data management and exhibition.
Shifting responsibility for unpacking the fossils is especially risky, according to Sue Ann Bilby, the state's former Field House curator and a Vernal native who grew up working at the monument.
"You could have another professional [unpack], but turning it over to volunteers is scary at the max, because those bones are fragile," Bilby said.
She's frustrated with the direction of a park that was explicitly established for its fossil riches.
"If you gut the program, do we lose the [Vernal] repository? Do we lose the quarry?" she said.
Utah State Paleontologist Jim Kirkland said it's sad that the U.S. government is neglecting its fossil programs.
"Even a poor country like Argentina is throwing more money at it than we are," he said. Meanwhile, children are turned away from the most famous dinosaur site in the world, he said.
Imhof said she fears the downgraded program will lose its scientists-at-work magic for visitors.
"You know when you go to a place and it's musty and the exhibits are all dusty?" she said. "You can just tell it's a backwater. I believe it would have that feel, and it's just depressing."