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Return of the Bone Wars

The Fight to Save Scientifically Important Sites in the Western United States Continues

Chase Brownstein

In the late 19th century, two scientists engaged in a vicious competition for academic glory in the wide landscapes of the American West. Othniel Charles Marsh, a noted Yale professor, and Edward Drinker Cope, a similarly accomplished anatomist and paleontologist, skirmished over prized fossil sites, sometimes even destroying each other’s discoveries.


As the fight over fossil sites and other locations of scientific interest has exploded during the Trump presidency, I cannot help but consider the destruction caused by Cope and Marsh’s “Bone Wars.” Today, researchers gather in a fight to save the scientifically, culturally, and ecologically important areas of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bear’s Ears National Monuments from destructive mining and other commercial activities. For example, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, a major group in my field, has mobilized to fight Trump’s December 4, 2017 order to shrink those monuments (updates on the situation can be found at these links:,

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Lands managed by the US Forest Service in the Gore Range of Colorado; the snout of Coelophysis bauri (top right corner), an early dinosaur known from the same rock layers now threatened by commercial development in areas formerly within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

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Commercial Interests Conflict With Protected Status

Unfortunately, commercial interests have begun to latch on to the newly opened lands once protected under national monument status. A Canadian company has staked a claim in an area removed from Grand Staircase-Escalante. On that site, layers date to an important period of transition in terrestrial life forms (the Triassic). What’s more, rocks in the vicinity of this claim have already produced good material from a bizarre distant relative of modern crocodilians and an extensive fossil forest (See:,-Press-Releases/Grand-Staircase-Mining-Grab.aspx).


In addition to the environmental ramifications that could come from the creation of a mine in this area, industrial development on lands formerly within the monuments will have a negative effect on scientific progress and show the importance of protecting these lands.


Crucial: Relentless Approach to Environmentalism and Conservation

Clearly, it is in the best interest of scientific progress, environmental preservation, and cultural conservation that the dangers now posed to these lands be met with heavy opposition. What we do now, whether calling our representatives in Congress, participating in rallies, town halls and debates, donating to groups that promote conservation, or, most importantly, voting, will decide the fate of these lands forged out of a more than 200-million-year geological and biological saga.

Chase Brownstein is Research Associate at Stamford Museum and Nature Center and a member CT Chapter Sierra Club

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