Utah Case Shows Wyoming’s Dinosaur Fossil Fields Are Prime Targets For Poachers

A 13-count indictment charging four people with allegedly poaching more than $1 million in prehistoric fossils from Utah a cautionary case for Wyoming, which has some of the richest fossil deposits on the planet.

AR
Andrew Rossi

November 04, 20238 min read

This stone carved to resemble a fossil was put up for sale for $48,000, according to court documents in a Utah case of fossil poaching.
This stone carved to resemble a fossil was put up for sale for $48,000, according to court documents in a Utah case of fossil poaching. (U.S. Attorney's Office, Utah District)

Not many crimes raise the hackles of people in Wyoming than poaching, and the recent indictment of four people accused of poaching in Utah sheds an unsavory light on a problem that is likely more prevalent and damaging than many realize.

But these alleged poachers weren’t illegally taking deer, elk or any living animal. They stand accused of poaching extinct animals, stealing them from public lands and damaging those lands in the process.

Pilfering Poachers In Utah

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Utah announced Oct. 18 that a federal grand jury in Salt Lake City returned a 13-count indictment last week charging four people for allegedly buying and selling more than $1 million in poached paleontological resources.

The defendants include two Moab, Utah, residents — 65-year-old Vint Wade and 67-year-old Donna Wade —Steven Willing, 67, of Los Angeles, and Jordan Willing, 40, of Ashland, Oregon.

All four face charges of conspiracy and theft of property against the United States, as well as multiple felony charges for violating the federal Paleontological Resources Preservation Act.

Between 2018 and 2023, they allegedly bought more than 150,000 pounds of dinosaur bones and other fossils poached from federal lands. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said the Wades bought the fossils from “known and unknown unindicted individuals” using cash or checks.

The Wades, who own Wade’s Wood and Rocks in Moab, sold the fossils at gem and mineral shows. The Willings bought poached fossils from the Wades and exported many of them to China, mislabeling and deflating their value to evade federal agents.

The defendants also are accused of causing an additional $3 million of damage to public lands in southeastern Utah.

“By removing and processing these dinosaur bones to make consumer products for profit, tens of thousands of pounds of dinosaur bones have lost virtually all scientific value, leaving future generations unable to experience the science and wonder of these bones on Federal land,” said U.S. Attorney Trina A. Higgins. “The United States Attorney’s Office and our law enforcement partners are dedicated to protecting paleontological resources throughout the State of Utah. We will hold accountable anyone who seeks to engage in similar criminal conduct.”

Examples of dinosaur fossils poached from a site in Utah.
Examples of dinosaur fossils poached from a site in Utah. (U.S. Attorney's Office, Utah District)

Bad For Business 

Paul Ulrich owns Ulrich’s Fossil Gallery outside Kemmerer, Wyoming, continuing a family legacy and a business of excavating fossils — legally — since Carl and Shirley Ulrich first started excavating in quarries near Kemmerer in 1947.

Fossils found by the Ulrichs are on display in museums around the world, and the family was instrumental in establishing Fossil Butte National Monument in 1972.

Ulrich said poaching fossils from public lands is “an ongoing issue” that has persisted in the American West over the last 40 years. As someone who respects Wyoming’s fossils and federal lands, he finds cases like these frustrating and sad.

“Once again, it raises the continuing problem of adequate enforcement of our extremely valuable fossil resources,” he told Cowboy State Daily.

Ulrich said those who poach fossils are usually “very disreputable commercial dealers” thinking only about quick turnarounds and profits. He said they usually operate at night, using camouflage canopies and heavy equipment to excavate fossils as quickly as possible.

“Naturally, those resources hit the market with no regard to the loss of the general public, let alone the scientific community, of fossils that warranted scientific exploration and display and enjoyment by the general public,” he said.

As someone who has made a living from the ethical excavation and sale of fossils, Ulrich has a personal reason to be outraged by the alleged misdeeds of fossil poaching in Utah. When disreputable people commit these illegal acts, it impacts the work of reputable people in the business.

“Those of us who collect legally and responsibly and share our collections with the general public are at a distinct disadvantage and an economic loss competing against unregulated poachers,” he said. "It hurts all of us that are doing us right.”

Flood The Market

“Doing it right” means ethically finding and excavating fossils, he said. Permits must be obtained to excavate fossils of dinosaurs and other vertebrate animals, and they must be preserved in a public institution once they’re out of the ground.

Museums, universities, and commercial operations excavating fossils on private land arrange leases with landowners since fossils usually fall under a property’s surface rights in Wyoming and other Western states. The Ulrich family has built a reputation and livelihood by following all the ethics when it comes to permits, leases and permission, he said.

Ulrich said those who poach fossils are usually “very disreputable commercial dealers” thinking only about quick turnarounds and profits. He said they usually operate at night, using camouflage canopies and heavy equipment to excavate fossils as quickly as possible.

With their lack of scruples, fossil poachers try to offload as much as they can as quickly as possible. This makes the business of fossil hunting more difficult for everybody.

“They can flood the market and seriously degrade our ability to stay in business by doing it right and legally,” Ulrich said. “That hurts all of us in Wyoming. We have employees. We pay our taxes. We contribute to local economies.”

Where In Wyoming?

There hasn’t been a notable indictment or conviction for fossil poaching in Wyoming in many years, but that doesn’t mean the Cowboy State is immune to it. Ulrich thinks Wyoming is large and isolated enough for poachers to confidently and discretely excavate and steal fossils from state and federal lands.

“Because most of our extremely valuable fossil resources are in isolated areas, it has and probably continues to be (difficult) for law enforcement and others to identify poaching cases,” he said.

In 1993, federal agents found several large holes some 70 feet wide on BLM land near Farson, Wyoming. They believed the holes were dug by poachers using heavy machinery to remove giant slabs of rock containing fossils. Nobody was caught in the act, so nobody was charged.

Ulrich said that some poachers have been caught and charged with serious federal crimes for removing fossils from public lands. However, that hasn’t dissuaded others from continuing to pilfer fossils that rightfully belong to the American people.

“It’s a tremendous loss,” he said. “There’s more poaching of our collective resources than we’d like to admit. Unfortunately, as big and remote as Wyoming is, I suspect it continues in Wyoming to this day.”

Wyoming is rich with prehistoric fossils, like these tiny fish perfectly preserved in Kemmerer's ancient lake beds.
Wyoming is rich with prehistoric fossils, like these tiny fish perfectly preserved in Kemmerer's ancient lake beds. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

Fossil Forensics

Ulrich said it's tricky, but not impossible, to tell which fossils are poached and which were excavated legally and properly.  

One of the best ways is to ask specific questions about a fossil’s provenance that disreputable sellers will avoid or refuse to answer.

“You can start to differentiate between a reputable and disreputable seller by asking the right questions. When did you acquire this piece? When did you acquire it? There’s a series of easy questions a buyer, a law enforcement officer, or a museum can ask to help determine if they are buying from a legal or illegal source,” he said.

Often, the evidence of fossil poaching that leads to convictions isn’t found in the remote wilderness but in rock shops and gem and mineral shows where poachers usually try to sell their ill-gotten gains. Recently, several poached and illegally exported dinosaur fossils were returned to Mongoliaafter they were found for sale in a Wyoming rock shop.

The likelihood of finding fossil poachers in the act of illegally excavating is as remote as the public lands they pilfer. However, in the unlikely event of catching a poacher in the act, Ulrich says fossil poachers should never be approached or confronted.

“Eyes wide open is always a great approach,” he said. “If you see obvious digging or removal in a fossil-bearing zone, flag the location, GPS it, and report it to (law enforcement.) If you come across somebody digging in the middle of the desert and are actively removing fossils, do not engage. Remove yourself from the situation and immediately call the Sheriff’s Office or BLM law enforcement and have them investigate.”

Andrew Rossi can be reached at arossi@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Andrew Rossi

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