View through Valley of the Gods, Utah
The iconic Bears Ears buttes in Utah’s Valley of the Gods – signed over to mining by the Trump administration. Photo: ©istock

High stakes as science battles Trump over fossil protection

 

US scientists are suing the Trump administration over endangerment of what is believed to be the world’s densest cache of fossils from the Triassic period, roughly 250 million to 200 million years ago.

Science magazine reported in January that archaeologists, environmentalists, outdoor companies and five Native American tribes had joined the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) to sue the Trump administration in federal court.

At the centre of the row is the protection of rare fossils in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah. The region’s rich paleontological and archaeological record—and the lobbying of southwestern tribes whose ancestors lived there—persuaded former President Barack Obama to designate the area a national monument in the latter days of his administration.

Slashed by 80%

But the fossils, and the special research funding that came with the designation, are under threat. In December 2017, President Trump slashed the size of the 547,000-ha monument by 85%, leaving just 82,000 ha split into two separate units. 

Since Trump’s order took effect (February 2018), the excised lands, which hold thousands of Native American artifacts and sites—and possibly the world’s densest cache of fossils from the Triassic period, roughly 250 million to 200 million years ago—are open again to mining, expanded grazing, and cross-country trekking by off-road vehicles. 

Only monuments

That spurred the SVP-led group to claim the1906 Antiquities Act used to create Bears Ears only allows presidents to establish monuments—not to drastically reduce them. 

Science reports that if the SVP wins, the ruling could set a precedent that would help safeguard the boundaries of the 158 national monuments created under presidential authority. And if it loses, future presidents could gain new powers to downsize them.

Natural Images 2019

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