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Paleontologist P. David Polly in the fossil-rich Circle Cliffs region of Utah, which President Donald Trump has removed from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Society for Vertebrate Paleontology/Colter Hoyt

Q&A: Why fossil scientists are suing Trump over monuments downsizing

In a move likely to lead to a precedent-setting court battle, President Donald Trump earlier this week dramatically downsized two national monuments in Utah. On 4 December, he lifted strict protections from about 85% of the 61,000-hectare Bears Ears National Monument, which was created by former President Barack Obama last year. And he cut in half the 760,000-hectare Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, created by former President Bill Clinton in 1996. Both monuments are known for exceptional sites holding the remains of ancient human settlements, unique ecosystems, and troves of fossils.

Trump said the cuts were needed because past presidents had “severely abused” their authority under the federal Antiquities Act in creating the monuments, which typically bar industrial activities. The law “requires that only the smallest necessary area be set aside for special protection as national monuments,” Trump said in remarks in Salt Lake City. “Unfortunately, previous administrations have ignored the standard and used the law to lock up hundreds of millions of acres of land and water under strict government control. These abuses of the Antiquities Act give enormous power to faraway bureaucrats at the expense of the people who actually live here, work here, and make this place their home.”

The Trump administration has said it might also downsize two other monuments—Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou and Nevada’s Gold Butte—and allow more industrial activity in a half-dozen others, including several marine preserves. 

Many conservation biologists, archaeologists, and paleontologists oppose the moves, saying it could open the way to damage of sensitive sites by mining, grazing, and recreational activities. And Native American tribes, environmentalists, outdoor companies, and one scientific society—the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), based in Bethesda, Maryland—are challenging the decisions in court. They argue that only Congress—and not the president—can change monument boundaries. That legal claim has never been tested, however, setting up a potentially blockbuster decision that would reshape federal land management.

ScienceInsider spoke with SVP’s president, paleontologist P. David Polly of Indiana University in Bloomington, about why researchers are so concerned about Trump’s actions, and why the group is suing. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What was the scientific rationale for creating these monuments in the first place?

A: There were multiple reasons for making them monuments, but in both cases paleontology was one. When Grand Staircase-Escalante was set aside, there were very few areas anywhere in the world where we had a mammal fossil record right at the late Cretaceous period, when different mammal groups were diverging. Those fossils really filled a gap in mammal paleontology and put Grand Staircase on the map from a paleontological point of view. We now have the most extraordinary Late Cretaceous ecosystem documented anywhere. After the monument was established, a lot of the dinosaur material was discovered.

Q: Has Trump removed monument protection from any areas of particular interest to scientists?

A: In Bears Ears, the very oldest and the very youngest fossils have been excluded, including one area that documents the transition from amphibians to true reptiles. In Grand Staircase, they’ve hacked off most of the very southern edge of the monument and the very eastern edge. That cuts out a really important interval in time, including the world’s greatest mass extinction, and the Triassic period, which is really when life started re-evolving again. Some of the mammal-bearing units I just described are out in their entirety. One of the great ironies is that the original localities where all the great discoveries were made in the 1980s and 1990s, which led to the founding of the monument, are now out of the monument.

Another thing that they have cut in Grand Staircase, by almost 100%, is one of the few marine units in the Cretaceous unit, called the tropic shale. Most people know the story of the asteroid hitting at the end of the Cretaceous and causing a mass extinction. One of the interesting things from a scientific point of view is that that extinction started a long time before the asteroid hit. There were all sorts of climatic changes happening, including times when the oceans weren’t carrying a lot of oxygen. A lot of marine organisms perished, and there was a stepwise extinction before the asteroid even hit. One of those extinction events is being studied in that tropic shale, which is known to have shale gas potential. Since it’s going back to [normal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) multiuse management], it will be open for leases to do fracking. You can imagine what will happen to the skeletons of mososaurs [carnivorous marine lizards] if you hydraulically fracture the rock. They’re gonna break.

Q: These lands will still be in federal hands under BLM. Wont there still be a number of protections for fossils in place?

A: As of 2009, there is a congressional act called the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, which affects almost all federal land. It does protect vertebrate fossils, making it illegal to collect them unless you have a scientific permit. Fossils that are collected have to go into a public repository, because they remain the property of the U.S. government. So there certainly will still be protection at that level even outside the monument.

But several things are lost: First, in the monument paleontology had priority over other uses. [But on BLM lands managed for multiple uses,] if there’s another competing use the paleontology does not necessarily hold sway. An extreme example would be mining—if mining wins out, then the fossils can be destroyed. Second, the monument is better staffed, so it’s harder for someone to sneak in illegally and take things, whereas on ordinary BLM land it’s much less well policed.

Third, in national monuments where paleontology is one of the designated resources, there’s a whole special funding stream for research. A lot of the work that has been done at Grand Staircase has essentially been a public-private partnership. The funding through the monument has really made the science there blossom; we would not have seen the level or number of finds there over the last 20 years had that not existed. For example, you may have seen recently there was a new, almost complete tyrannosaur skeleton found in Grand Staircase and it was helicoptered out. The resources that go into things like helicopter support will be lost to researchers whose sites are now outside [the monument].

Q: What else might change for the researchers seeking to work on these lands?

A: For anybody whose field area was in the monument and isn’t now, I would speculate that they’re going to have to get new permits through a different office, the regional land management office. If a researcher was relying on the special monument funding, they’re not going to have it. But they could still carry on research should they get the permit and funding from somewhere else. And if there isn’t a mineral lease or something like that.

I was talking to somebody who is excavating a plesiosaur, one of the marine reptiles. He has already started the excavation and is planning on finishing it next season. He has a permit, but his permit covers Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. His site is now outside the monument, so he no longer has a permit to continue his work. Next year he’s going to have to presumably apply for a new permit.

Q: How many other projects could this affect?

A: I’ve asked SVP members whose projects might be interrupted to let me know, and I have an inbox full of replies, which I haven’t yet had time to process. But I can tell you off the top of my head that there are at least 20 long-term researchers in Grand Staircase who were planning to continue their work. Those are senior scientists, and each one of them has people working around them. So I think we could easily estimate at least 100, if we imagine five crew members with each. Roughly 10% of SVP members have either done research there or visited to look at sites, about 200 to 250 people.

Q: Why did SVP decide to sue?

A: Partly it was finding good legal support that was willing to take us on pro bono, and partners in this suit that would help make it credible. Because we are a scientific society we don’t normally do stuff like this. We don’t have funds for it. But the damage to science and the damage to the legal protections that we fought for is potentially so great here that, given that we can make a good case, it was a no-brainer.

There’s a point of principle here because vertebrate fossils are rare. Often a vertebrate fossil is one of its kind. But even when it’s not one of its kind, paleontologists need to know things about ranges of variation, geographic distributions of species, and so on. So from the society’s point of view, unless vertebrate fossils are just complete scrap that you can’t identify, they're scientifically important. We have worked incrementally to get little bits of protection for them; monument status for some key areas like these is one form. This really is a major step backwards in protection because it sets a precedent: If a new president doesn't care about those things, he can just change the rules and doesn’t have to protect them anymore.

[SVP] is always concerned that where at all possible, fossils go into a public repository where scientists can go back and look at them and verify what was said was correct. Preferably, they can could go back to the field to where the specimens were found. It’s those principles of reproducibility that make us very concerned [about Trump’s move], because scientists have worked in the monument with the assurance that sites in those areas would meet those criteria.

Q: Are other scientific societies considering joining the lawsuit?

A: The Paleontological Society has certainly been very concerned about this and published an open letter to Trump in The New York Times. But so far as I know we’re the only scientific group that's filed a lawsuit. And that's partly because we concentrate on fossils that are rarer, and Grand Staircase and Bears Ears really are extraordinary resources for our science.