Article: How to Approach Fossil Collecting and How Not to Get Shot at Doing So.
By Franklin E. Bliss
Bliss Ranch

So you want to collect dinosaur or other fossils and you are visiting an area
that might have federal/state/indian lands or even worse, the dreaded private land.
The following is a discussion of what it takes to have/gain access properly to get the
fossils out.

Common Sense Fossil Collecting Access

How you gain access to property that might have fossils depends on
where you are trying to get to.   The first rule is have a detailed map of
the area that has state/federal property marked as such.  Have yourself
located properly when you get there, and don’t hunt fossils if you
don’t know where you are. Don’t forget, sometimes to get somewhere, you
have to go across multiple properties. Sometimes even jumping across land corners
is considered trespassing.  Go figure.

Federal/State Lands:
Fossil Preservation act of 1996:
Federal Lands (which comprise a significant amount of area on the high
plains) are wonderful areas to collect fossils.  These are not to be
confused with Indian land to which you have NO access.  There is
however a very specific set of rules and regulations regarding
collection of fossils in general and scientifically unique fossils
specifically on federal property.  I am not  an attorney and as such
suggest that if you are going to seriously collect fossils on federal
lands that you reference the specific federal laws regarding this
activity. An internet search under the Fossil Preservation Act of 1996
will give you lots of night time reading.

Generally it is my opinion that as long as your collecting group is 10
or less in number, you are “reconnesance collecting” and don’t bring in
the bulldozers/explosives, you will be ok.  If you plan to disturb more
than two cubic meters of soil/rock, you better be contacting the
federal/state land manager for the area you are on.  Additionally you
better have a permit from the same manager to do so because the fines
and penalties are very significant for disregarding the law.
Generally, collecting fossils on the surface is not subject to
requiring you to inform the land manager. Remember that you are limited
to collecting surface specimens sitting ontop of weathered rock or
outcrop. You are also limited to using simple hand tools to remove
surface specimens. (You would be hard pressed to convince a federal
judge that a D4 Bulldozer is a hand tool.) The tools specifically
listed in the act are: hammers, chisles, prybars and rakes though I
suspect that the various itterations (like picks) are acceptable.

A federal manager may reserve a particular area and set it aside from
fossil collecting access.  Such an area might be already under study/be
a site and is being worked by a permitted educational institution.  He
is required by the act to publish this restriction in the federal
register.  The best action in our opinion, is to pick a likely area,
check with the local federal land manager and get a note from him that
it is OK to collect a particular spot.  It is always better to do your
homework. Under NO circumstances should you collect ontop of someone
elses digs.  You might and probably are breaking the law if you do. You
also might not want to collect in area that have endangered species
hanging about.  No quarrying activities are allowed on federal lands
without permit period.

State/Federal Parks/Preserves
Don’t collect there or even disturb the ground.  The penalties are
severe and you should expect special forces to come repelling over the
top of the cliff to arrest you.

Indian Lands:
Unless you are a reservation resident and have granted access by the
tribal elders in writing, don’t even consider it without a local
guide/friend with you at all times.

Private Lands:
The best plan with collecting private lands is to contact the land
owner and get permission in writing for access.  This permission note
should indicate who owns what if you find the million dollar fossil.
Tradition/law is that the fossils belong to the landowner/mineral
rights owner.   It is not unheard of to make a donation to the
landowners college fund to gain access. After 30 years of collecting
fossils, my general observation is, trespassers always seem to be
parking their car immediately next to the targets at a landowners
shooting range and the landowner is a terrible shot.  In other words,
don’t trespass unless you are willing to pay for the tow, replacing the
motor of your car and the price for breaking the laws both
federal/state and local. Some landowners can get downright nasty about
unannounced visitors.

Road side collecting:
Generally road side collecting is OK on smaller state highways and
county roads as long as you pull your vehicles far enough off the road
as to not cause a hazard.  This is as long as you are on the roads
right of way.  If you are off of the right of way, the above
considerations apply. The authorities patrolling interstate highways do
not allow cars to pullover and park on the right of way (to the fence)
period.  You might be able to get away with a warning if you collect
entrance and exit ramps.

Commercial Collecting:
The collection of fossils for sale is a whole subject by itself.  Some
people make a living collecting fossils commercially.  There is a huge
market in the United States for quality fossils and particularly for
dinosaur fossils. Individual specimens can sell for thousands of
dollars and the temptation is there to start a hobby and turn it to
money.  Generally, my advice is don’t.  First you have to obtain a
commercial permit to collect federal lands (not easy).  Second, any
rare fossil will have to be turned over to the government as it is
scientifically unique (good for us, bad for you). A few commercial
collectors (who have given the others a bad name) come in and destroy a
site just for a few fossils.  All the other information is lost to
science forever.  I personally think buying or selling very common
fossils is not a problem but the rare stuff should go to science.
Smuggling of fossils is another serious subject.  Some Chinese fossils
have made it to the american market.  The smugglers (if caught in
China) will be put to death.  Other countries deal with these
individuals in more interesting ways.

The statements above are general rules to follow and things to be aware
of.  This article is not all encompassing but hopefully will cover most
situations that you may find yourself in if you have the desire to hunt
fossils. Keep your eyes to the ground, watch out for the snakes and
good hunting.

Copyright 2004
Bliss Ranch
Frank Bliss
MS Biostratigraphy
Weston, Wyoming