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Hope remains that stolen Utah dinosaur footprint is still intact

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 10:13 a.m. MDT

This picture shows the dinosaur footprint just off the Hells Revenge trail near Moab that was stolen. The theft was discovered Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, by a guide from a tour group and reported to the Bureau of Land Management. (Bureau of Land Management) This picture shows the dinosaur footprint just off the Hells Revenge trail near Moab that was stolen. The theft was discovered Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, by a guide from a tour group and reported to the Bureau of Land Management. (Bureau of Land Management)

MOAB — A fossilized dinosaur footprint that was illegally pried out of the ground near Moab may still be intact, despite having been dumped in the Colorado River, according to a paleontologist with the Bureau of Land Management.

"Instead of being just a pure sandstone, it has a limestone layer in it, which is a little harder than the sandstone itself," BLM district paleontologist ReBecca Hunt-Foster said Monday. "Its chemical compound is just a little bit different, which makes it a little more resistant (to erosion)."

Members of the Utah Department of Public Safety's dive team spent several hours Saturday searching the Colorado River near Dewey Bridge, 30 miles east of Moab, for the rock that contains the Allosaurus print.

"You're searching by Braille," Grand County Sheriff Steven White said, describing the conditions in the river.

A composite photo shows a dinosaur footprint just off the Hells Revenge trail near Moab before and after it was stolen. The theft was discovered Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, by a guide from a tour group and reported to the Bureau of Land Management. (Alex Cabrero, Deseret News) A composite photo shows a dinosaur footprint just off the Hells Revenge trail near Moab before and after it was stolen. The theft was discovered Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, by a guide from a tour group and reported to the Bureau of Land Management. (Alex Cabrero, Deseret News)

"Everything is by hand," he said. "You have zero visibility. You're dealing with changing currents. You're dealing with obstacles. It's very hazardous diving conditions."

Search teams used sonar equipment as well but were unsuccessful in their efforts to find the fossil, which was stolen from BLM-administered lands near the Hell's Revenge trail in mid-February. Saturday's river search was launched after a suspect came forward and told authorities where the fossil had been dumped.

"It's not what we want to hear," Hunt-Foster said. "I mean, it could always be better. We wish it wasn't in the river."

Kent Green, who discovered and reported the theft on Feb. 18, equated throwing the fossil in the Colorado to "throwing it in the trash."

"Why in the heck would somebody do that?" Green, the owner of Moab Cowboy Country Adventures, asked. "Why wouldn't they just leave it where somebody could find it?"

Hunt-Foster shared Green's sense of outrage and disbelief.

"It's real heartbreaking that that's where (the fossil) ended up," she said. "If you ever do take a fossil, you're welcome to bring it to the office and return it. Give us a call, leave it by the side of the road, call me and tell me where it is. I'd much prefer that to having it down in the river."

White declined Monday to identify the person who told authorities where the dinosaur track had been dumped, citing the ongoing federal investigation. Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah, also said she could not release the suspect's name, but said charges could be filed as soon as the end of the week.

The Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, which became law in 2009, protects dinosaur tracks and prehistoric fossils from vandalism and theft. Violators face criminal and civil penalties, including fines and possible jail time.

Business owners in Moab have offered a reward that has grown to $7,000 for information that leads to the recovery of the fossil footprint. Some of the donated money came from out of state.

The chances the fossil will remain intact decrease the longer it remains underwater, Hunt-Foster said, but right now there are no plans for another search of the river, unless conditions change.

"If there's a drought, you'll find me out there, up to my knees, looking for the track," she said.

The BLM asks anyone with information on the theft to call 801-539-4082. Suspicious activity near any archeological area should be reported to the agency by calling 435-259-2100.

Email: gliesik@deseretnews.com, Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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