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Paleontologist calling for protection of fossils in Northwest Territories
GNWT has legislation on its radar

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services
Published Monday, January 27, 2014

A noted paleontologist from Alberta is expressing concern that there is no NWT legislation to protect fossils.

Donald Henderson, curator of dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, Alta., said there is a worldwide problem of people taking fossils out of the ground and selling them for profit.

Henderson doesn't think there is such a problem in the NWT, and said it is not really surprising there is no legislation.

"It's so remote from the main populated areas and travel there is expensive and time-consuming," he said. "If someone was coming up there to make off with fossils, they'd have to be pretty dedicated."

However, Henderson believes all fossils need protection.

"They are rare and there's no more being made. It really is a finite resource," he said. "The main reason we have fossil legislation is to cut the black market and people selling fossils."

Henderson noted Alberta set a standard in such legislation.

"All fossils in Alberta are covered by what's called the Historical Resources Act, and it covers both archeological and paleontological stuff," he said. "You cannot collect fossils in the province without a permit, and to get a permit you need to have proper qualifications and be associated with a reputable institution, like a museum or university."

The Alberta legislation has been copied by Saskatchewan, and British Columbia is also considering enacting such a law.

Henderson said legislation is needed in Western Canada, because it has rocks of the right age to contain fossils.

That includes the NWT, he added. "I'm sure there are all sorts of treasures out there."

Tom Andrews, manager of the NWT Cultural Places Program and the territorial archeologist with the Department of Education, Culture and Employment, confirmed there is no legislation in the NWT to protect fossils.

"Certainly, the GNWT has recognized this deficiency," he said. "It was recognized at the start of the 17th assembly and it's something that we have on our radar and are working on."

Andrews said the NWT has a rich paleontological heritage and it's important that heritage be protected from inappropriate use and damage.

It is premature to say what any legislation would involve, he said. "We'll certainly be looking at what other provinces and territories do in this, and devise a system that will meet our needs here in the Northwest Territories."

There is no target date for legislation to be introduced.

Over the past couple of years, Henderson has occasionally been in the NWT to investigate tracks and fossils along the Hay River, south of Enterprise. For that work, he had a permit to conduct scientific research from the Aurora Research Institute.

Henderson noted that, in certain places in the south, some people gather fossils to sell.

"Amateurs and people only interested in profit take stuff out of the ground and then it turns up in trade shows," he said. "Every year there is the Tucson Rock and Fossil Show, and all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff from all over the world shows up."

In fact, one of his colleagues travels to Tucson every year to see if there are any Alberta fossils on sale that were taken out of the province illegally.

Depending on the rarity of a fossil, some can be sold for thousands of dollars.

"What annoys the scientists is that yahoos go in with a claw hammer or a backhoe and whack stuff out of the ground, possibly damaging it, and they don't record where it's from or anything about the rocks. Then it gets sold and all that information about when it's from, which is the same thing as where it's from, is lost," said Henderson. "That's our real concern. These things are truly unique, and, once they're taken away from the ground with no records, you will never really know when they're from."

Unmarked trucks have even occasionally been spotted parked just outside Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, he noted. "It's obviously someone going into the park to try and steal bones and take them to sell."

Henderson said some amateurs like to collect fossils for themselves.

"But again if they haven't got proper technique, they could damage important stuff," he said, although adding the bigger concern is systematic collection. "Basically people try to mine them. They're more interested in quantity than quality, and a lot of stuff will get damaged."

The GNWT's Andrews is not aware of any such systematic collection of fossils taking place in the Northwest Territories.

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