The sun rises above Cedar Mesa

The sun hovers above Cedar Mesa (foreground) and the Valley of the Gods (background), lands no longer part of Bears Ears National Monument.

Bob Wick/BLM

Scientists sue to protect Utah monument—and fossils that could rewrite Earth’s history

BEARS EARS NATIONAL MONUMENT IN UTAH—On a rise with a sweeping view of the Indian Creek valley in southern Utah, skirts of red earth unfurling for kilometers in all directions, Adam Huttenlocker crouches to examine a knee-high nub of Cedar Mesa sandstone. Embedded in the rock is an ivory oval with a smoky center. The paleontologist, from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, leans in for a closer look. Other researchers gather round, and soon they identify the mysterious eyelike fragment: It is a cross section of limb bone, probably from a synapsid—the group of reptiles that gave rise to mammals—that lived here more than 300 million years ago.

Thousands of such rare fossils pepper Bears Ears, a sweep of buttes and badlands whose candy-striped sedimentary rocks catalog hundreds of millions of years of Earth's history. The region's rich paleontological and archaeological record—and the lobbying of southwestern tribes whose ancestors lived here—persuaded former President Barack Obama to designate the area a national monument just over 2 years ago, in the waning days of his administration.

Now, those fossils, and the influx of special research funding that came with the designation, are under threat. In December 2017, urged on by Utah officials, President Donald Trump slashed the size of the 547,000-hectare monument by 85%, leaving just 82,000 hectares split into two separate units. Since Trump's order took effect in 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.

That prospect spurred the typically apolitical Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), based in Bethesda, Maryland, to sue the Trump administration in federal court, joining archaeologists, environmentalists, outdoor companies, and five Native American tribes. Their argument: The 1906 Antiquities Act used to create Bears Ears only allows presidents to establish monuments—not to drastically reduce them. The cutbacks represent an "extreme overreach of authority," SVP said in announcing the lawsuit just days after Trump's move. If SVP wins, the ruling could set a precedent that would help safeguard the boundaries of the 158 national monuments created under presidential authority; if it loses, future presidents could gain new powers to downsize them.

At Bears Ears, the potential loss to science—and society—is sizable, says former SVP President David Polly, a paleontologist at Indiana University in Bloomington. Fossils here chronicle major events that remade the world—from the evolution of early life on land 340 million years ago to the shift in climate at the end of the last ice age that ushered in the era of human civilization.

"It's a landscape of stories," says Rob Gay, a paleontologist and education director with the Colorado Canyons Association in Grand Junction, who has studied the Bears Ears area for more than a decade and was among the first paleontologists to push for monument designation. Without protection, he says, "our knowledge of our planet [will be] diminished forever."

Paleontologist Rob Gay, who helped uncover what may be the world's densest cache of Triassic fossils, combs through rocks near the discovery site.

Mason Cummings/The Wilderness Society

For a lesson in how monument status can pay off for paleontology, Gay motions toward Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, 228 kilometers away across the mesas and canyons of southern Utah. A similarly rich fossil trove, from the era when dinosaurs ruled, helped make the case for that monument, which was established by then-President Bill Clinton in 1996 and cut in half by Trump in another December 2017 proclamation. An influx of federal funding followed, which Polly credits with allowing researchers to uncover some of the world's best records of the Late Cretaceous.

Within 10 years, researchers had discovered fossils from 25 taxa new to science and documented the rise of flowering plants, insects, and the ancestors of mammals between 145 million and 66 million years ago. "It was essentially the origin of modern ecosystems happening in the Cretaceous before the extinction of the dinosaurs," Polly says. "And I think it is safe to say that we wouldn't have that concept if it hadn't been for the research at Grand Staircase." He estimates that 40% to 50% of SVP members have used data from Grand Staircase-Escalante studies, and another 10% have conducted research there themselves.

"Bears Ears is sort of like what Grand Staircase was at one time—there were a few sites known [when the monument was created] and clearly a lot of potential," he adds.

Bears Ears's record begins earlier, more than 340 million years ago, when the supercontinent Pangaea spanned much of the planet. A tropical sea that covered the area began to fill with sediment shed by the uplifting Rocky Mountains, leaving thousands of prehistoric sea creatures, mammallike reptiles, and dinosaurs entombed in hardened mudflats. Some of those fossils help tell the story of the "great dying" 252 million years ago, which killed 96% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial ones, clearing the way for dinosaurs. Others chronicle the End Triassic extinction some 50 million years later, which wiped out 76% of terrestrial and marine life.

Amid the red-rock spires of the Valley of the Gods, for example, Huttenlocker and his team are uncovering a trove of 300-million-year-old fossils, including what may be the most complete skeleton of a sail-backed synapsid predator known as Dimetrodon. Meanwhile, with the help of high school students, Gay has discovered what could be the largest concentration of Triassic fossils in the United States—and possibly the world. Excavation has just begun, but already Gay and his team have found rare fossil fragments of four phytosaurs—6-meter-long crocodilelike creatures that roamed these lands 212 million years ago. Many other sites remain uninvestigated.

Early on, says paleontologist Allison Stegner of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, some locals skeptical of the monument came to share scientists' enthusiasm for the resources it aimed to protect. When the Bears Ears designation was first proposed, "people were excited to learn about what was in their area. [They] were totally unaware that southeastern Utah is a world-class destination for paleontology," says Stegner, who did local outreach for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) while the monument was under consideration. But there was little money and staff to nurture the emerging goodwill, and the momentum was lost, she says. "Instead, what's happened is a lot of animosity toward the monument."

Monumental reversal

In December 2017, President Donald Trump issued proclamations shrinking Bears Ears National Monument by 85% and nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly half, leaving out fossil-rich areas such as the Valley of the Gods and the northern portion of Indian Creek.