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Ray Boone, Deseret News
BLM paleontologist ReBecca Hunt-Foster sees fossils, tracks and other things most people just drive right by in the Moab area. Shes also seen the damage left behind when someone steals a dinosaur footprint.
When I see something that has been damaged, it’s like somebody punches me in the gut. —ReBecca Hunt-Foster, Bureau of Land Management paleontologist

MOAB — Vandalism is a growing problem in the Moab area, and a missing dinosaur track is just one of many historical artifacts that have been stolen or ruined in the past few years.

Bureau of Land Management paleontologist ReBecca Hunt-Foster said she has seen so many dinosaur tracks during her career, she’s lost count. Unfortunately, she also can't say how many tracks she has seen ruined.

"When I see something that has been damaged, it’s like somebody punches me in the gut," Hunt-Foster said.

She sees fossils, animal tracks and other things that most people drive past in the Moab area.

"I’ve kind of just trained my eyes to it," she said. “The dinosaurs that are leaving their tracks in this particular rock, in this particular age, we don’t have their bones yet. We only have tracks, which is really cool.”

But not all tracks are hidden from everyone, and it's those tracks that are in danger. Those include some prints at the Poison Spider Trailhead where people have been pouring material into them trying to make casts out of them.

"When you try to pull something that's hard out of something else that's hard, you end up doing a lot of damage to the tracks," Hunt-Foster said. “I can try to clean it, but once it’s broken, it’s broken.”

In some cases, the entire track is gone.

On the road leading to Canyonlands National Park, someone tried to chisel out a section of rock where a print was and destroyed it.

"I would imagine when they chiseled it, it flaked apart,” Hunt-Foster said. “I would be really surprised if it came out in one piece."

There are signs at many sites reminding visitors that vandalism is illegal. But some visitors don't obey.

"If a person has criminal intent, I can't prevent them from crossing over this fence and defacing this rock art," BLM archaeologist Don Montoya said.

Part of the problem is BLM rangers can't be everywhere, especially in remote areas. Petroglyphs like those in Moonflower Canyon were ruined when people carved their names, initials or dates right over them. Art that is hundreds or maybe thousands of years old was ruined in seconds.

"It's beyond my comprehension,” Montoya said. “I don't know that it’s ignorance, people not knowing. I don't know if it's people not caring. I don't know if it's just stupid. How do you fix that?"

Hunt-Foster said when people take tracks, they not only take it from the land, they take it from all the public to enjoy.

"I think some people think they will get rich off it, make millions by selling dinosaur tracks. And some people just want something neat at home to have on their shelf, show off to their friends, or use as a doorstop — something to decorate their homes with," she said.

Vandalism and destruction of fossils occur pretty regularly.

“It’s just super disappointing to see something you knew was there previously, and you drive by a week later and it’s gone,” Hunt-Foster said. “Somebody has just taken it for no obvious reason. … There’s just no other way to say it. It just stinks, because they’re not just taking it from me as a scientist who wants to enjoy it.”

The latest theft was reported Feb. 19. A dinosaur track along the popular Hells Revenge Trail was cut out of Jurassic-age Navajo sandstone, back when the allosaurus, or one of its ancestors, was roaming the region. Scientists estimate the track was 190 million years old.

Ken Green, owner of Moab Cowboy Country Offroad Adventures, takes groups to the area every day. The last time he saw the track was about 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 17 and when he returned the next day about 3:30 p.m., it was no longer there. He reported the theft to the BLM.

“We were upset,” said Jason Taylor, manager of Moab Adventure Center. “There’s a lot of people who make their living in the backcountry here, and when these things get stolen or taken or defaced, it affects us, not only because we care about the area, but it’s also our careers and our livelihoods.”

People should enjoy the area, bring their friends and family and leave with photographs, not tracks or items that have been there tens of thousands of years, Taylor added.

“I like to share as much as I can with our guests and clients that come out, and now something is ruined forever,” said Melissa Nerone with Rim Mountain Bike Tours.

A group of local outfitters has pooled together money to offer a big reward for information leading to an arrest.

“We were surprised at how many people jumped in, and the business owners jumped on it because we don’t want to see our backyards torn up and this is everybody’s country,” Taylor said.

They’ve raised about $7,000 in about a week. Some of the donated money came from out of state.

The BLM asks anyone who would like to report suspicious activity to call 435-259-2100.

Also, there are volunteers called "site stewards" who keep an eye on archaeological sites in danger of vandalism or natural deterioration. With so many sites, stewards often focus on the sites that are large, easily accessible, or prominent, known sites. To become a site steward, contact the BLM for information.

Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc

Email: acabrero@deseretnews.com