112 million-year-old dinosaur tracks near Moab damaged by machinery, experts say

Last week, visitors to the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite noticed vehicle tracks across and near the site’s exposed footprints.

(Mike McCue) The wooden boardwalk around the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite outside Moab, pictured here on Jan. 30, 2022, has been removed and stacked by a contractor hired by the Bureau of Land Management as part of the site’s renovation. Moab residents are concerned the contractor damaged the tracksite, considered among the significant in the nation, by driving heavy equipment over the tracks.

A contractor hired by the Bureau of Land Management appears to have damaged dinosaur tracks near Moab while conducting renovations intended to protect one of Utah’s most significant paleontological treasures.

Last week, visitors to the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite noticed vehicle tracks across the site’s footprints where a wooden boardwalk had been removed as part of the recently commenced renovation. A backhoe equipped with a pallet fork was parked on-site and sections of the dismantled boardwalk were stacked nearby.

It appears the contractor’s crew was unaware that some of the site’s important tracks are concealed under sand and drove heavy equipment over them, according to Lee Shenton, president of the Friends of Utah Paleontology’s Moab chapter.

“It’s been known from the beginning that the track-bearing layer was hard but thin and brittle,” said Shenton, who met BLM officials to learn what went wrong and how to mitigate the damage. “We had experts from China, Korea, Argentina, Spain, the U.K. and the U.S., and every one of them told us, ‘Don’t walk on this tracks layer any more than you absolutely have to because it will fracture under your weight.’ You may not see the fractures, but the next time there’s a freeze-thaw, those fractures will open up, and the tracks will be destroyed.”

Shenton has been active in the site’s stewardship since its discovery in 2009 and helped document its extensive network of footprints before it became a public destination in 2013.

The BLM’s Moab staff declined to provide an explanation of what happened but did offer a statement late Monday that suggested heavy equipment did not cause the damage.

“The Moab Field Office is working to improve safe public access with an updated boardwalk that is designed to protect the natural resources of this site,” the statement said. “During that effort, heavy equipment is on location, but it is absolutely not used in the protected area.”

The damage was first reported to the BLM last week by Sue Sternberg, a Moab resident who has monitored the site since its discovery. According to Shenton, the BLM promptly halted the work.

“I was stunned,” Sternberg said. “I had no idea this was happening.”

The episode has drawn the scrutiny of paleontologists, who converged on the site over the last few days to assess the damage, and has raised questions about whether the BLM has the staff and resources available to properly manage the extensive and unique fossil resources under its care in Utah.

“I’m absolutely outraged that the BLM has apparently destroyed one of the world’s most important paleontological resources,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin program director for the Center of Biological Diversity. “This careless disregard for these irreplaceable traces of the past is appalling. It really calls into question the bureau’s competence as a land-management agency.”

(Jeremy Roberts) Tire marks are seen adjacent to fossils at Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite in Moab Sunday, Jan 30, 2022.

In recent years, several tracksites have been discovered in Utah’s Cedar Mountain Formation and designated as destinations for visitors. Mill Canyon, located 15 miles north of Moab off U.S. Highway 191, is the most significant. Some 200 imprints, representing at least 10 different species of dinosaurs, including sauropods, iguanodons and three carnivores, are recorded in the rock, left about 112 million years ago in the early Cretaceous Era, according to paleontologist Martin Lockley, who led the first study of the site in 2014.

“For a long time, nobody took tracksites seriously as a resource to be protected. Suddenly in the last 10 years, it has dawned on people in resource management that these tracksites are very important, and you can create destinations,” said the University of Colorado emeritus professor. “The [federal land management] agencies designated these sites as important, so it is surprising there is this sudden change of plan [at Mill Canyon] and a reorganization of the site without consulting the paleontology community. This is the reason why there is all this fuss.”

The tracksite is distinct from the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Interpretive Trail, a companion attraction located nearby. Most visitors see both on the same trip. That trail provides an interpretive experience for dinosaur bones that remain embedded in the rock.

Visitors going to the tracksite park at a trailhead and follow a quarter-mile path to a shelter and interpretive plaque. The now-removed boardwalk framed the exposed tracks in a horseshoe shape.

The dinosaur tracks are far more extensive than what is visible from the boardwalk and reach farther out from the exposed rock framed by the walkway, according to Shenton. Since their discovery and study several years ago, wind and rain have covered them back over with sand, and the BLM refrained from brushing off the sand since that would erode them.

The BLM designated the site for public use in 2013 and built a raised wooden boardwalk so people could view the tracks without stepping on them. The original boardwalk has not held up to the “parade of visitors” and the elements, according to an environmental assessment signed Oct. 12 by the BLM’s Moab field office manager Nicollee Gaddis-Wyatt. By 2021 it was already warping and presenting a trip hazard, so the BLM decided to replace it with an elevated concrete walkway poured into a metal platform.

It is to be built on the same footprint as the wooden walkway, which had been erected on top of tracks that had already been ruined from heavy foot traffic.

“The posts will be the exact same places, so it will do no more damage to the site,” Shenton said.

Gaddis-Wyatt’s decision authorizing the work says a BLM representative would conduct inspections to ensure the tracks would not be damaged. It also said the tracks would be flagged, but no flagging was evident in any of the photos of the damage shared with The Salt Lake Tribune.

“The weather and erosion ended up covering up significant portions of the site, especially after a heavy rain, so the guys that were doing the work couldn’t see the tracklayer. That was the problem,” Shenton said. “They just drove across it thinking this is just more sand. I don’t think there’s any bad guys here.”

Shenton attributed the misstep to the BLM’s failure to replace its Moab-based staff paleontologist Rebecca Hunt Foster when she left to work for Dinosaur National Monument in 2018.

“If they had replaced the paleontologist, many of us believe that this paleontologist would have understood better the risks of doing construction on that site,” Shenton said, “would have been able to understand the technical papers that were published about it and pointed out the areas to avoid.”